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April 9, 2021updated 30 Sep 2022 10:09am

US newspaper circulations: How Covid-19 hit sales of America’s largest daily print titles

By William Turvill

USA Today lost more than half of its print sales as US newspaper circulations were hit by the Covid-19 crisis last year, Press Gazette research has found.

The title, owned by publishing giant Gannett, saw its print circulation fall by 60% in the months after Covid-19 restrictions were imposed across the country.

America’s other largest newspapers – the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times – also experienced significant declines over the summer. USA Today and the Journal were particularly badly hit by falling sales to hotels as travel dried up during the pandemic.

On average, the largest ten weekday newspapers in the US experienced a circulation fall of 20% in the six months to September 2020, Alliance for Audited Media (AAM) figures show.

But this average was dragged down by USA Today and the Journal. Other declines were less extreme among newspapers that were not reliant on hotel sales, with subscriptions holding up over the summer.

For this analysis, Press Gazette obtained AAM certificates for the ten newspapers we previously identified as having the largest weekday circulations in the US.

Beneath our US newspaper circulations table, we take a closer look at the AAM certificates of the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and USA Today to examine where sales were lost.

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Outside of the top three newspapers, the circulations of the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and New York Post fell 9%, 10% and 14% respectively.

The smallest newspapers in the top ten – the Chicago Tribune, Newsday and the Star Tribune – experienced relatively minor declines of 3%, 4% and 2% respectively.

The Tampa Bay Times’ average weekday circulation rose from 137,590 to 142,516, but this was after it made the switch from a daily to a newspaper published only on Wednesdays and Sundays.

Wall Street Journal

January-March 2020, average weekday circulation: 994,600

April-September, average weekday circulation: 810,058

Change: -184,542 copies (-18.6%)

The headline fall may look dramatic for the News Corp-owned Journal, but its ordinary sales figures weren’t too badly affected in the early months of Covid-19.

Its individually-paid circulation, comprising home deliveries and single-copy sales, fell by 4% from 803,487 to 772,641 between the January-March and April-September periods.

By contrast, the circulation of Wall Street Journal copies in hotel rooms and lobbies – less active due to travel restrictions – fell from an average of 51,665 to 6,008.

The WSJ’s ‘qualified circulation’ – which includes the distribution of educational copies of the newspaper – also fell significantly, from  61,417 to 13,192.

Its ‘verified circulation’, which comprised copies made available for free public access, was 55,995 in the first quarter. The Journal did not have a ‘verified circulation’ on its April-September certificate.

The bigger picture for the Journal is that, while its print circulation fell by nearly 200,000 in the months after the Covid-19 crisis began, its digital-only subscriber numbers have grown from 1.9m in March 2020 to around 2.5m today.

Read more: How Wall Street Journal used subscriptions ‘science’ to sign up 350,000 new online subscribers this year

The Wall Street Journal tops the table for US newspaper circulations (Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

New York Times

January-March 2020, average weekday circulation: 410,562

April-September, average weekday circulation: 360,015

Change: -50,547 (12.3%)

The New York Times’ average weekday home delivery and mail circulation fell from 342,066 in the first quarter of last year to 320,363. Its average single-copy sales dropped from 47,285 to 33,884.

It experienced similar declines for its Sunday edition, which had a far higher average print circulation of 838,866 between April and September.

The NYT’s distribution in hotel rooms and lobbies fell from a weekday average of 9,845 to 977.

Like the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times has a big focus on digital subscriptions. Between March and the end of 2020, its digital-only subscription numbers grew from 5m to 6.7m.

Read more: Top ten US newspaper circulations: Biggest print titles have lost 30% of sales since 2016 election

USA Today

USA Today

USA Today (Photo by ALASTAIR PIKE/AFP via Getty Images)

January-March 2020, average weekday circulation: 486,579

April-September, average weekday circulation: 194,369

Change: -292,210 (60.1%)

In the first quarter of 2020, USA Today had an average weekday circulation of 298,312 in hotel rooms and lobbies.

This fell to 44,947 between April and September, accounting for the vast majority of its circulation decline.

Like News Corp and the New York Times, USA Today owner Gannett – which owns hundreds of local and regional newspapers across the US, and in the UK through Newsquest – is prioritising digital subscription growth.

At the end of 2020, it had built up 1.1m digital subscriptions across its news titles.

Photo credit: Hannah Beier/ Reuters

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