The decline of traditional newspapers in recent decades has received significant public attention and concern. The rate of this decline accelerated around 1980, coinciding with the launch of the first 24-hour cable news channel, CNN. Most recently, web-based news and entertainment have provided competition to newspapers—often giving a platform to unpaid writers, experts, and hobbyists—and advertisers turned to these new options. According to the Newspaper Association of America, newspaper ad revenues fell dramatically from about $45 billion in 2007 to around $17 billion in 2013. Newspapers are adapting to the online world, but newsrooms are generally shrinking.
Using data from Newspaper Association of America, the charts show trends in newspaper circulation and number of papers from 1920 to 2014. The total number of US daily newspapers has been on a slow, steady decline since the 1920s, when there were around 2,000 daily papers, to about 1,400 newspapers today. Newspaper circulation, in contrast, rose nearly every year until the early 1970s, to around 60 million, and then held steady for 20 years. Since 1990, daily circulation fell from over 60 million to around 40 million in 2014—the lowest circulation numbers since the Great Depression.
Some media regulations were written with the assumption that newspapers would maintain market power over advertising rates and would dominate Americans’ news and media consumption. Regulators’ static view of media competition locked in business models despite a whirlwind of changes resulting from the rise of competing distributors, including satellite, cable, Internet, and mobile. Despite the closing of hundreds of newspapers and the loss of tens of millions of subscribers, some Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rules continue to hamstring daily newspapers. Most notably, since 1975 the FCC has prevented newspapers from owning local TV stations. These legacy rules mean that while a multibillion-dollar media organization like Vox Media or Viacom can purchase a local TV station, the local paper in that TV market cannot. Other regulatory absurdities result from dated assumptions about competition and technology.
These rules obstructing market forces in media may end up costing Americans twice. In light of newspaper struggles, advocates are pushing state and national lawmakers to subsidize local and state news operations with taxpayer dollars. Absent market-based reforms, the FCC’s media ownership rules from bygone eras will continue to hinder local media, public accountability, and government budgets.