Study: Despite Circ Declines, Future Holds Hope

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By: Jennifer Saba

Newspapers still hold the title for the largest newsgathering organizations in most cities. But according to a report released today by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, their future survival will depend on two things: customized content and the profitability of online versions.

“The State of News Media in 2004” is the first study funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts and conducted by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, an institute affiliated with the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. The report — which covers all media — includes original analysis and pulls data from a variety of sources regarding content, audience trends, economics, ownership patterns and trends, investment in the newsroom and the public’s attitude toward media.

It’s no surprise that the study confirmed that a decline in readership continues, that newspapers, along with network and local TV, are experiencing dwindling audiences. According to the study, U.S. daily newspaper circulation has dropped by about 1% per year since 1990.

What is a surprise is that the decline in circulation is not necessarily a death knell for the industry. On the contrary, the study found that newspapers have a tremendous opportunity. “I would say the future of newspapers seems to me brighter than I think I would have said a decade ago,” said Tom Rosenstiel, director of PEJ. “A decade ago it was not clear whether people in the future wanted to read. In this report we find that people are still interested in the news and reading the news. But the notion of a one-size-fits-all newspaper seems much more complicated. Maybe that idea is not going to survive in the long run.”

Ethnic, alternative and online media are areas experiencing the most growth. For example, the study found that in the past 13 years, Spanish-language newspaper circulation has nearly quadrupled to 1.7 million. Ad revenues are up sevenfold; circulation for alternative weeklies has more than doubled, from 3 million in 1990 to 7.5 million in 2002; and more than 55% of Internet users aged 18-34 obtain news online.

Cuts in the newsroom though remain problematic and in the long term could erode any future profits. The report found that “between 1991 and 2000 newspaper ad revenues rose 60%, according to estimates by Merrill Lynch. Profits increased 207%. Yet newsroom jobs increased only 3%.”

PEJ plans to update the study every year.

For the complete report, visit

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