The Continuing Slide in Newspaper Advertising

Continuing declines in newspaper advertising revenues
Industry practitioners were hoping to stem the decline in newspaper advertising revenues in 2011. Alas, it was not to be ...
The hoped-for uptick in newspaper advertising has yet to materialize. In fact, the Newspaper Association of America’s just released final statistics for 2011 advertising revenues show a significant continuing decline in ad revenues rather than a leveling off, as some industry practitioners had hoped.

Overall advertising revenue dropped ~7% during the year. The print portion was off by more than 9%, while digital advertising revenues weren’t able to offset those losses; they rose only a modest ~7%.

Translated into dollars, newspaper industry ad revenues were just shy of $24 billion. If you add in other sources of income from things like contract printing, the total revenues for 2011 were about $35 billion for the entire industry in the United States.

Compare that figure to Google’s revenues for 2011: ~$38 billion.

That is correct. One single company – one that wasn’t even in business 15 years ago – chalked up more revenues than all of America’s 2,000+ daily and weekly newspapers put together.

Looking past the decline in print ad revenues is the sluggish pace of digital ad revenue growth, which has come nowhere close to replacing print advertising revenues. For every $1 gained in digital advertising, $7 in print advertising is lost.

A recent Project for Excellence in Journalism study by the Pew Research Center concludes that slow culture change at newspapers is partially responsible for the problem, not simply changing news consumption habits among consumers of all ages. The analysis from Pew and others contends that the prognosis remains bleak for the newspaper companies, even as the U.S. slowly climbs out of the economic doldrums.

From the vantage point of a few more years to see how consumer behaviors have evolved, it now seems quite likely that we’re headed to a two tiered structure in the newspaper industry: Strongest at the top with a few papers with truly national circulation (The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today) … and also somewhat strong at the bottom with hyper-local papers that deliver news to an audience that finds it difficult to access it from other sources. (High school sports stories are always a hit.)

Everything in between? Unfortunately for them, it’s going to continue to be a major struggle. And is there even a light at the end of the tunnel?

Newspapers Turn on Each Other

Dinosaurs in Disney's FantasiaLast week, the Associated Press reported that U.S. newspaper advertising revenues declined dramatically in 2009, bringing ad receipts to the lowest level recorded in nearly 25 years.

In fact, newspaper publishers’ total advertising revenues last year came in below $28 billion, down $10 billion from 2008. According to the Newspaper Association of America, annual ad revenues have now fallen by nearly $22 billion – a whopping 44% — since 2006.

And now, amid this toxic environment comes word that The Wall Street Journal has declared an all-out war on The New York Times for local advertising. In mid-April, the Journal — up to now focused almost exclusively on national and international news — is set to introduce a New York-focused section as part of its paper. Outside observers believe this will put as much as ~20% of the New York Times’ retail advertising revenues at risk.

And this isn’t a minor foray on the part of the WSJ, either. It will be spending upwards of $15 million to produce the new 12-page section which will cover local business, real estate, sports and cultural events. The financial outlay includes salaries for ~35 editorial writers – surely one of the few instances of new editor jobs actually becoming available.

The WSJ action couldn’t come at a worse time for the Times, which has experienced sharper ad revenue declines than the industry average. It’s responding by launching a major trade marketing campaign of its own, touting its audience strength with female readers and “high culture” afficionados.

But just how effective this countermove will be is debatable, as recent moves by the paper haven’t exactly telegraphed a continuing commitment to the local news scene. In the last few years alone, the Times has consolidated weekly sections covering specific regions of the New York metro area (Long Island, Westchester, Northern New Jersey), as well as axing its stand-alone “City” and “Metro” sections.

Over the coming months, it’ll be interesting to see how effective the WSJ is with its new local-focused section – whether or not it’ll land a major blow on its rival.

Either way, the vision of two venerable newspapers engaged in a Herculean struggle, fighting over an ever-shrinking advertising pie is isn’t exactly a pretty sight.

It reminds me of the famous scenes in the Disney movie Fantasia of the huge dinosaurs furiously going after one other – even as the world’s changing ecosystem is rendering the entire species extinct.