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

The United States’ largest newspapers have lost more than 30% of their print circulation since the last presidential election, analysis of US newspaper sales by Press Gazette shows.

The business-focused Wall Street Journal has performed better than its biggest print rivals. The News Corp-owned title is America’s largest weekday newspaper by some distance, with an average circulation just shy of 1m.

No other US newspaper has a weekday circulation of above 500,000, according to figures from the Alliance for Audited Media (AAM). USA Today (486,579) and the New York Times (410,562) take second and third places respectively for their weekday print runs. 

It should be noted that while print sales have declined, digital subscribers have surged for the WSJ and The Times which have 2m+ and 6m+ digital subscribers respectively.

A note on the numbers: The table below shows the top ten weekday print circulations of newspapers that submit their figures to the AAM (not all do so). The figures cover an average over the first three months of 2020 and are compared with the third quarter of 2016. More up-to-date figures for 2020, which are likely to show a steep decline thanks to Covid-19, are not yet available for all publications. The figures do not include digital sales. We have also excluded advertising-focused newspapers, like Newsday’s Hometown Shopper, from the top ten list.

Sunday editions stronger for US giants

Weekend circulations tend to sell better in the US.

The Wall Street Journal’s Saturday edition has a slightly larger circulation – 995,684 – than its weekday newspaper.

The New York Times’ Sunday edition, meanwhile, is more than double the size of its average weekday paper, with a circulation of 876,178, down 18% since the third quarter of 2016.

The LA Times (414,678), Chicago Tribune (391,999) and Washington Post (343,587) also have significantly higher circulations on Sundays than they do in the week.

Wall Street Journal circulation breakdown

A breakdown into the Wall Street Journal numbers shows that its average paid circulation for weekdays is around 877,000. Others are free or are not sold at full price.

About 780,000 of paid-for copies are distributed by home delivery and mail, and the newspaper attracts an average 23,971 single-copy sales. Around 22,000 of its paid circulation is filed under ‘group subscriptions’, and a further 52,000 are distributed in hotels.

The WSJ’s AAM certificate for the first quarter of 2020 includes insight on how its newspaper is distributed by state (see map below).

Based on its 28 February edition, which had a US circulation of 993,461, the title’s biggest state is California (where 132,362 copies were distributed), followed by Florida (93,017), New York (78,627) and Texas (69,111). In addition to its US circulation, the WSJ also sold 1,857 copies in Canada and 8,062 in other countries.

New York Times’ Sunday circulation breakdown

Press Gazette also obtained the New York Times’ certificate, which breaks down the same figures. Below is a state-by-state breakdown of the way its popular Sunday edition was distributed on 1 March this year.

A comparison with the UK

It is notable that the biggest newspapers in the UK (population: 67m) have larger circulations than their peers in the United States (population: 330m).

As of March 2020, both the Daily Mail and the Sun had bigger circulations than the Wall Street Journal.

This discrepancy is likely to be explained by the fact that the UK has a large number of national newspapers, while the US has hundreds of daily newspapers covering regional and national news.

Regardless, UK and US newspapers are on the same trajectory.

Between September 2016 and March 2020, the circulations of the UK’s largest audited paid-for newspapers – The Sun, Daily Mail, Daily Mirror, Times, Daily Express, Daily Star, i, Guardian and the Financial Times – declined by an average of 29% (just outperforming the top ten US titles, which fell 30%).

Newspaper circulation stats go unreported

Several US organisations formerly published and commented on print circulation data on a regular basis. But this has not been the case for several years now.

One of those bodies was the  Newspaper Association of America, which has since been renamed the News Media Alliance.

Asked to explain why circulation figures are no longer regularly published in the US, the NMA’s chief executive, David Chavern, told Press Gazette: “As you noted, we don’t track circulation anymore.  That decision was made before my time, but I think the core insight was that continual – and predictable – print declines don’t really tell the story of an industry where the vast majority of the audience is digital.

“Print is a good product that a lot of people like and is still solidly profitable. But, as with a lot of industries, the public is moving consistently to digital consumption.  There are real benefits to that, including the fact that our overall audience is much higher than any at point in history.

“But long-term it will only work if we fix the digital ecosystem so that more value [is] returned to the people who invest in professional journalism. Profitable print and unprofitable digital is not a sustainable mix.”

Photo credit: Shutterstock/ Claudio Divizia

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