But the data shows this isn't the case. Numbers from the International Federation of Audit Bureaux of Circulation (IFABC) actually shows that trend ended in 2011. Printed newspaper readership is now declining in almost all major economies.
ABC members in 23 countries around the world sold 123.5 million newspapers per month in 2011, almost 2 million fewer than they sold in 2010, a decline of 1.6 percent. Every country included in the stats reported a decline in average circulation except Belgium, Brazil, Malaysia and the US (and Malaysia’s rise was 0.08 percent – slightly more than 3,000 copies).
The most severe circulation declines between 2010 and 2011 were:
– Romania: Three papers saw their circulation drop by more than 40 percent, a further five saw declines of more than 20 percent, and only one paper, one of the country’s smallest Curierul National, saw a decline less than 10 percent. Overall, circulation fell 28 percent.
– Spain: The number two, three and four bestselling newspapers that report to ABC in Spain – El Mundo, Marca and Abc – saw circulation fall more than 10 percent as overall circulation declined 7.8 percent. The best-selling newspaper – El Pais – saw circulation decline just 4,963, a 1.3 percent drop.
– Czech Republic: Total circulation fell 8.7 percent year on year – more than 107,000 copies. The falls were pretty evenly spread across the nation’s newspapers, with none escaping with a smaller than five percent fall, and the biggest loser taking a 13.7 percent hit.
Of course, Spain is one of those western developed markets where you would expect circulation to be dropping, and the country is suffering from a European financial crisis that undoubtedly is having some impact on Romania and Serbia as well.
China and India: A population of two billion turning away from newspapers
But what is perhaps more worrying for the global future of newspapers is that China saw the fifth biggest fall in circulation of those countries surveyed by the IFABC. Circulation declined by more than half a million between 2010 and 2011.
That’s a reversal that has only happened in the last few years. As recently as between 2008 and 2009, three of the five newspapers reporting back to ABC in China saw circulation rise, and total circulation for the five newspapers rose more than 33,000.
Another particularly worrying trend is India. If you compare circulation of ABC members in India in 2008 and 2011, they added an extra 3.9 million copies over the three years, taking total circulation among the Indian ABC members to 30.5 million.
But, if you look at just 2010 to 2011 circulation fell for the first time since 2008. Admittedly the fall was only 220,000 and that relatively modest drop masks some serious volatility. The Hindi newspaper Dainik Bhaskar saw circulation more than halved – with more than 1 million copies shaved off its circulation. But it looks like growth in the Indian newspaper market has at the very least stalled.
The world’s two largest countries by population, which were until recently increasing their newspaper consumption, have both started abandoning them.
The US: Not as good as it looks
The rise in circulation reported by US ABC members is encouraging, but not necessarily indicative of the country as a whole. The total gain of more than 116,000 copies – 3.2 percent – for the three papers that reported to the ABC was down entirely to the New York Times, which added 119,000 to its circulation between 2010 and 2011 alone. Meanwhile, the 33,000 fall in circulation at The Washington Post basically cancels out the 30,000 rise at The Wall Street Journal.
However, if you look back further, comparing circulation between 2008 and 2011, even that big bump at the NYT in 2011 can’t mask a net decline of more than 57,000 copies at the three papers.
Furthermore, US Today, which didn’t report ABC stats in 2011, was in a tail spin between 2008 and 2010, losing almost 440,000 from its circulation in just two years. If it had kept reporting to ABC, it’s likely continued declines at the paper would have pushed the net circulation of the four papers for 2011 into the minus despite the gains at the NYT.
Brazil: Fragmented and volatile
Brazil offers an even more complex story than the US in part because its newspaper industry is hugely fragmented. There are 73 separate papers reporting to the ABC in Brazil – many are regional variations of the same title – and the largest single circulation barely breaks the 300,000 mark. Total circulation across all these papers was up 3.5 percent.
Between 2010 and 2011, 44 of these newspapers reported varying rates of circulation rise, and the remainder reporting an equally varied set of declines.
It’s difficult to pin down the exact cause of this global decline in newspaper readership. However, the most plausible cause in developed and emerging economics is increased access to the internet and the spread of smartphones.
But in developing markets – smartphones are bringing internet access to huge numbers of people for the first time. That suggests that internationally, the impact of smartphone technology is likely to speed the decline of newspaper readership in developing markets even more quickly than it has done in the west. Whereas the UK and USA went through a PC era, BRIC nations are skipping that and going mobile-first.
(Below is a graph showing the scale of variation in the one major developing market where newspaper readership increased – Brazil)