ABC: Newspaper circulation rose in last six months, 5% on Sundays

Audit Bureau of Circulations
Newspapers across the country gained readers in the last six months, compared to the same period a year ago, according to new figures released by the Audit Bureau of Circulations. Nationally, daily circulation was up .68 percent for digital and print at the 618 papers reporting; Sunday circulation was up 5 percent at the 532 papers reporting.

On average, digital circulation now accounts for 14.2 percent of newspapers’ total circulation mix, up from 8.66 percent in March 2011. Digital circulation may be tablet or smartphone apps, PDF replicas, metered or restricted-access websites, or e-reader editions.

The New York Times reported a 73 percent gain in circulation fueled in large part by digital gains. In fact, the Times’ daily digital subscribers exceed its daily print subscribers.

Average Circulation at the Top 5 U.S. Daily Newspapers
News organization Print Total digital Total avg circ (3/31/12) Total avg circ (3/31/11) % change
Wall Street Journal 1,566,027 552,288 2,118,315 2,117,796 .02%
USA Today 1,701,777 115,669 1,817,446 1,829,099 -.64%
The New York Times 779,731 807,026 1,586,757 916,911 73.05%
LA Times 489,514 100,221 616,575 605,244 1.87%
NY Daily News 400,061 156,470 579,636 530,924 9.17%

The Orange County Register posted a 53.48 percent rise in daily circulation, the highest after The New York Times, from 182,964 to 280,812. Its Sunday circulation rose 33.94%, from 287,657 to 385,283.

The Washington Post’s Sunday circulation fell 15.66% from 852,861 to 719,301, and daily dropped 7.84% from 550,821 in 2011 to 507,615 this reporting period compared to last. The Post reported 19,291,000 unique users of its website, compared to 32,364,000 for The New York Times.

For Sunday subscribers, the Times takes the lead (the Journal and USA Today do not have Sunday editions). Other newspapers show large gains.

Average Circulation at the Top 5 U.S. Sunday Newspapers
News organization Print Total digital Total avg circ (3/31/12) Total avg circ (3/31/11) % change
The New York Times 1,265,839 737,408 2,003,247 1,339,462 49.56%
LA Times 850,267 102,494 952,761 948,889 .41%
Houston Chronicle 459,231 67,086 916,934 587,982 55.95%
Chicago Tribune 755,265 24,175 779,440 780,188 .10%
Washington Post 688,576 30,725 719,301 852,861 -15.66%

Of the top 25 papers, these saw the largest gains in daily circulation:

  • New York Times, up 73.05 percent
  • Orange County Register, up 53.48 percent
  • Newsday, up 33.21 percent
  • Denver Post, up 23.43 percent
  • Newark Star-Ledger, up 21.67 percent

Of the top 25 papers, these saw the largest losses in daily circulation:

  • The Washington Post, down 7.84 percent
  • Seattle Times, down 6.63 percent
  • Detroit Free Press, down 6.27 percent
  • Philadelphia Inquirer, down 5.36 percent
  • Chicago Tribune, down 5.17 percent

Of the top 25 papers, these saw the largest gains in Sunday circulation:

  • Dallas Morning News, up 87.38 percent
  • Houston Chronicle, up 55.95 percent
  • The New York Times, up 49.56 percent
  • The San Antonio Express-News, up 38.67 percent
  • Newsday, up 36.77 percent

Of the top 25 papers, these saw the largest losses in Sunday circulation:

  • The Washington Post, down 15.66 percent
  • The Cleveland Plain Dealer, down .46 percent
  • Seattle Times, down .12 percent
  • Chicago Tribune, down .1 percent
  • The Los Angeles Times, up .41 percent

Only four of the top 25 papers lost circulation on Sunday, the LA Times had the smallest circulation increase.

The results are the second full set compiled under new rules for counting circulation implemented in September 2010. Because ABC releases such results every six months, Poynter’s Rick Edmonds wrote yesterday, they offer “the first opportunity in 18 months to make valid apples-to-apples comparisons.”

But how useful those comparisons will be to advertisers is unclear: The new rules allow publishers a variety of ways to count subscribers to various products multiple times. Digital replicas, branded editions such as Spanish language papers and digital subscriptions can all be counted according to publishers’ preferences, “allowing organizations to double or triple-count subscribers if they pay for access to one or multiple digital platforms,” Edmonds wrote. Whether publishers took advantage of that ability won’t be apparent until they release their own statements at mid-year.

Some papers have already clearly benefited from the rule allowing branded publications. The Houston Chronicle’s Sunday numbers were up 55.95 percent and include 390,617 copies of branded editions. On Sundays, those branded editions include La Voz de Houston, the Chron’s Spanish-language paper, and The Good Life, a lawn-delivered special weekend edition that goes to nonsubscribers. Brendan Butler, a research manager at the Chronicle, says The Good Life accounts for about 307,000 of the Sunday totals. When the branded editions are subtracted, the Chron’s average print and digital Sunday circulation is 526,317 in March 2012; subtracting branded editions from its March 2011 Sunday numbers puts its circulation then at 512,142. That’s still a nice gain, but it’ll give your eyebrows less of a workout.

Likewise the Los Angeles Times’ average daily numbers, up 1.87 percent, include 26,840 branded edition copies. Those include the Friday edition of Hoy Los Angeles, The Times’ Spanish paper, says the Times’ Hillary Manning. Without Hoy, the Times’ print and digital daily circulation is 589,735 this year, down from 605,244 in March 2011.

Julie Moos contributed to this report.

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  • Poynter

    Thanks for responding, Martin. The industry-wide, industry-led efforts that come to mind are probably a bit too early to judge, including iCircular ( and NewsRight ( Are they the sort of efforts you mean? And how optimistic are you about them netting benefits to the individual news orgs? –Julie

  • Martin Langeveld

    Hi Julie, you are right: So far, digital revenue is nowhere near replacing the lost print revenue. In fact, newspapers are really going backward on the digital side as well. Per NAA, newspaper digital revenue in 2012 was $3.249 billion vs. $3.166 in 2007 — or 2.6% nominal growth in 4 years, which is less than inflation so in real dollars it’s a loss. Compare Google’s growth over the same period from $16.6 billion to $37.9 billion and you can see how badly newspaper are missing the boat/losing the race. The question is: can anything be done about this or is it simply too late? The only hope i see is some kind of industry-wide, industry-led coordinated effort. Organic growth at individual newsco’s is not going to do it.

  • Poynter

    Hi, Martin. Thanks for these figures. No doubt, print will continue to drop relative to digital, though I find the Sunday circulation numbers encouraging. Rick Edmonds is on leave this month so I’ll role play on his behalf for a moment and ask: Can digital revenue really replace print revenue? Seems much of the digital money is not going to news orgs and probably won’t. –Julie Moos, Director of Poynter Online

  • Martin Langeveld

    The industry wants to be able to focus on the combined print/digital circulation numbers going forward, hoping that its audience will grow on that basis. However, growth of less than 1 percent on that basis (0.68%) is not impressive and clearly indicates that print circulation continues to sink.

    It is possible to dissect the numbers and figure out how much print is down. Here’s the math: If you take last year’s combined level as being 100, we are now at 100.68. Last year, digital was 8.66% of that, so print was 91.34. Now, digital is 14.2% of the total of 100.68, so print is 85.8% of 100.68, or 86.38. Print has declined from 91.34 to 86.38, which is a drop of 9.46 percent. (I predicted it would down 7% in December at NiemanLab, and 10% in the Sept. 30 period. Now it looks like the September print drop could be 15%.) I believe that tablets, most specifically the iPad, is a big reason for this drop — the experience of reading news on a tablet, once you get used to it, is so much better than what it is in print that print circulation for both newspapers and magazines is likely to fall off the cliff over the next 2-3 years as tablets reach household saturation levels of 80% or more (from about 30% currently). This accelerates the need to find digital revenue to replace print and shortens the timeframe most publishers believe they have to accomplish that.