Hidden Implosions For decades, historians will ponder when the U.S. newspaper industry began its financial decline. Circulation peaked at 63.3 million in 1984, but a more critical measure, market penetration, began earlier. Circulation had not kept pace with population growth. By 2009 newspaper circulation was 45.6 million, off almost one- third and slipping 7% a year. The free fall seemed to have leveled off by 2012, but the industry was undeniably in a survival mode.
The deteriorating newspaper industry had been masked during most of the decline because the industry had maintained profitability by slashing operating expenses. Pages were trimmed narrower to reduce newsprint costs. Trimmer products weighed less, which reduced fuel costs for distribution. Penny-pinching included cheaper grades of paper. Technology had increased the efficiency of production and, in some cases, eliminated jobs. Reporting staff were cut, resulting in less news coverage. Labor-intensive investigative reporting became rare.
Free Fall For years the cuts went largely unnoticed outside the industry. By 2010, however, there was no way to disguise the continuing erosions in readership and the concomitant loss in advertising revenue. The Great Recession that began with the sub- prime mortgage crisis in 2007–2008 quickly dug into the economy as a whole, causing a major cutback in advertising budgets, once-bursting classified sections, and the number of ads overall shrunk appreciably. In late 2009 advertising revenue was off 23.7%. Many advertisers, once with little alternative to newspapers, mainly migrated online.
The industry’s perennial cash cow, classified advertising, fell prey to Craigslist and other online services. The industry was horribly crippled. Owners took drastic steps, including further staff cutbacks that visibly diminished the product. The U.S. Labor Department estimated that 20,000 newspaper jobs were eliminated in 2008, and the constriction continued.
The dominance of newspapers among mass media was ostensibly over. Some analysts began to see newspapers owners now having no way out. The Tribune Company filed for bankruptcy in December 2008; Philadelphia Newspapers, LLC and the Journal Register Company followed suit in February 2009. It seemed like the demise of the newspaper industry was inevitable.
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