New York Times front page, Sunday May 24 2020
The front page of The New York Times on Sunday, May 24, 2020. (Image: Sipa USA/Richard B. Levine)

Yesterday The New York Times demonstrated the inherent power of newspapers in print with its deliberately anachronistically designed all-text front page under a downplayed single-deck headline “U.S. deaths near 100,000, an incalculable loss”.

It landed with a more metaphorical thud than usual on about 1 million doorsteps on Sunday morning, most of them in greater New York. It has already started dramatically reshaping the way America understands the coronavirus pandemic.

It’s a reminder that as a mass medium print derives its power from that combination of journalism, design and scale. While Australian papers retain the journalism (if not the understated design) the continued decline in print means they no longer have the mass scale to create that impact.

Sunday’s The New York Times will have had a higher circulation than the combined circulation of all today’s daily newspapers in Australia.

The New York Times' front page, Sunday May 24 2020
The New York Times’ front page, Sunday, May 24, 2020

Measured virus to virus, Australian daily metropolitan newspaper print circulation has fallen by over two-thirds — from about 2.4 million in 2003 at the time of the first SARS outbreak to less than 800,000 today.

The drop accelerated from the 2008 global financial crisis, falling half over the following decade. Since then the data suggests it’s been falling faster, about 10% year-on-year.

The lockdown has made things worse, restraining distribution and pick-up circulation through cafes, schools and airports. Based on overseas figures, it’s likely that papers that depend on corporate buys — such as the AFR or The Australian — are particularly affected.

The history of print decline is that there are few new buyers. Once the habit stops (either for individuals or companies) it rarely resumes. Many COVID-19-driven suspensions are likely to be permanent.

The rest of the world is closer to Australia than New York. In the London home of newspapers, figures last week showed masthead declines of up to 39% in April.

The industry response? Stop producing monthly audit figures, said the UK Audit Bureau of Circulation, due to “publisher concerns that monthly … circulation reports provide a stimulus to write negative narrative of circulation decline”.

Large Asian markets like India and Indonesia that have leveraged a growing literate middle class into paid print circulation have been more dramatically hit. India’s largest papers are cutting editions and salaries and retrenching staff,

In Pakistan, fake news has compounded the crisis as posts on social media have accused printed papers of carrying the coronavirus.

Avoiding the narrative of decline is why we no longer get regular paid circulation figures for Australian print.  News Corp pulled out of the Audit Bureau of Circulations (now called ABC) in late 2017, followed by Fairfax the next year.

The only figures since can be found buried in the company’s investor reports: for News Corp papers in the annual 10-K report to the US stock exchange; for Nine, in the print circulation revenue numbers in its annual and half-yearly presentations (which can conceal the scope of decline behind cover price rises). 

This means we won’t see any hard figures on the impact of the COVID-19 shock until the companies report their FY 2021 figures.

The media companies say readership, not paid circulation, is the true measure of their scale. Roy Morgan reports that 15.4 million Australians read newspapers — most of them online. That’s nearly 20 times the number who pay for the printed paper. No wonder that’s the figure they want to focus on.

But most of the online audience reads individual stories that are branded with the masthead, usually after following a link from search or social media. Some are blithely unaware of the masthead link, believing they’re reading, say, a Facebook story.

Print matters because it gives the masthead definition. It also continues to be the major source of money (more than two-thirds of Nine’s masthead revenues).

But the acceleration of the COVID-19 decline means the mastheads are losing the print scale that gives them that definition while stripping out those remaining ads that were providing the revenues that supported them both in print and online.

Get more Crikey, for less

It’s more than a newsletter. It’s where readers expect more – fearless journalism from a truly independent perspective. We don’t pander to anyone’s party biases. We question everything, explore the uncomfortable and dig deeper.

Join us this week for 50% off a year of Crikey.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
50% off