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Did Covid-19 End Newspapers? How Publishing Companies Are Compensating For Low Print Readership With waning print readership, newspapers are changing their business models to meet changing market demands.

By Stephen Emrich Edited by Chelsea Brown

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Newspaper readership has been drastically declining since the late 1990s and early 2000s. The US Inquirer, a regional newspaper in the midwestern United States, had a peak weekly print circulation of over 17,000 in 2008, but by the time 2020 arrived, the publication had met the same fate as many other newspapers, hitting all-time lows with a weekly print circulation below 500. The publication announced in a tweet that they would be discontinuing their print edition after July 4 and focusing on their much more successful digital edition.

According to a research study by Pew Research, circulation of newspapers peaked in the late 1990s at over 62 million with an advertising revenue of nearly $50 billion. Fast forward to 2020 — circulation is barely reaching 24 million, and advertising revenue has declined to just over $9 billion. That's a readership drop of over 60% and a revenue drop of over 80%! Only a handful of print newspapers have managed to hold on to their customers, including publications such as the The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today and The Washington Post.

Why has this happened? What trends are causing these drastic readership drops?

Why is print newspaper circulation dropping so much?

With emerging technology, everything is going digital. It's simply much easier and cost effective to have countless books, newspapers and magazines at your fingertips than it is waiting for physical copies to arrive.

Digital media is more interactive and immersive, users are able to switch between articles, share them and interact with media elements embedded within the articles — all things that are either more difficult or impossible to do with a physical print copy of a newspaper. Want to have a video embedded in your article? Can't do that on a printed paper.

Not only is it simple and more cost effective for the reader, but it's easier for publishers to distribute electronic copies of print media to readers. With digital editions, publishers do not have to buy paper, ink or maintain their printing presses. Also, advertisers are increasingly moving to digital platforms, and newspapers are wanting to get in on the action. Publishing companies are often including free digital subscriptions to print subscribers in order to ease them off print newspapers with the goal of eventually going fully digital.

Related: Is Your Biz Black and White and Read All Over?

How are newspapers combating lower print readership?

Print newspapers such as The US Inquirer are increasingly relying on digital readership and interactive elements, shifting their focus to monetization strategies that put much more emphasis on digital subscriptions and advertising to drive their revenue models. Publishers are putting more effort into multimedia content for social media than they were before Covid.

Here are some ways publications are monetizing content in the digital age:

  • Digital subscriptions: Newspapers are offering digital subscriptions, allowing users full access to the digital version of the publication.

  • Advertisements: Digital classified ads, Google ads and pre-roll video ads are among the most popular ad types.

  • Hosting events: Newspapers often host conventions and other in-person events, charging entry and vendor fees.

  • Social media: Newspapers are increasingly turning to digital content for social media, often monetizing this content.

  • Interactive apps and games: Some publishers are using games and interactive online elements to make money.

Here are a few examples:

USA Today led the pack into mobile apps. They entered the mobile app arena at just the right time to secure a massive audience, making them one of the most successful news app publishers in the world. They don't just do news, though. They have crosswords, videos, polls and other interactive elements in their mobile apps.

The New York Times purchased the massively successful online word game "Wordle" for an undisclosed amount that was "seven figures," according to the Times, all in a bid to increase the ways that users interact with the news publisher.

The National Newspaper Association holds a convention and trade show in Milwaukee every year.

Related: The Future of Content Lies in Transparent and Digital Publishing

Will print newspapers completely disappear?

Print newspapers have been increasingly cutting print days. Some are cutting so much they are becoming weekly publications, and others, such as The US Inquirer, are completely cutting all print editions. Gannett Co., the nation's largest newspaper publisher, cut print days at 136 of their publications, soon to be followed by 50 more. The company announced that digital editions would be available for all days that were cut, saying they were "embracing [their] digital future with this evolved experience."

Print newspapers still are a major source of revenue for publishers, even if it is not as much as it used to be. Digital earnings for Gannett Co. only account for 32% of its revenue, making print still a very valuable newspaper medium. It's not looking like most printed newspapers will be completely disappearing anytime soon, but expect digital editions to become more and more prevalent as time goes on.

Stephen Emrich

Business/Marketing Journalist

As a journalist, marketer, social media analyst and entrepreneur, Stephen Emrich has worked with some of the largest corporations in the world on marketing campaigns. He has also achieved global recognition as a musician and producer, working with many major artists and labels.

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