The rate of print newspaper decline shows no signs of slowing. Chris Sutcliffe looks at whether titles would be better off focusing their efforts on going digital-only.

The UK newspaper industry has an echo chamber problem: it’s not representative enough of the public it serves. We normally discuss the implications of that for how it impacts coverage of issues regarding race, sexuality etc. – and rightly so.

But what if that echo chamber is having another consequence when it comes to how news is disseminated? What if – whisper it – what if the public simply doesn’t love print as much as journalists do?

Our vanity is tickled when we see our names in print, but is that pride causing the industry to cling to print when it would be better off jettisoning it and going digital-only? Would the public be worse off – and would newspaper publishers’ bottom lines actually be better off?

Let’s take a quick look at the latest ABCs for newspapers in the UK. We’ll make it a very quick look, as by this point there are no surprises left in the ABCs. It’s got to the point that the title which has lost the fewest readers is declared the ‘winner’, which speaks to the resigned mentality the industry has to the future of mass-market print. For the August 2023 report that ‘winner’ was the Financial Times, which is an outlier as a business-focused title and is supplemented by bulks as well.

A chart demonstrating the year to date circulation changes for UK newspapers to August 2023

Meanwhile every other general newspaper continues to record double-digital circulation falls year-on-year, save for the i paper and the Metro and City AM freesheets (which itself is an outlier). And that’s not even taking into account titles like the Sun, the Guardian, the Times and Telegraph which now jealously guard their print circulations – a step they wouldn’t have taken if there was any good news to share.

Notably, there appears to be no paper in the UK which has established an equilibrium at which circulations have bottomed out and won’t reduce any further. I’ve been to more than a few conferences over the years where CEOs of papers confidently proclaimed that the rate of circulation decline was slowing, but over the course of the past decade even that optimistic narrative has been reframed. Nobody now speaks of achieving a sustainable level of print, but rather about how they are managing a decline to give them time to boost their digital revenue. Even that is looking more challenging given the increasing costs of print production.

None of which is to say that print has no future for newspapers. Some local titles like the Oldham Evening Chronicle relaunched as free print products following years of going digital only, to recapture some of the local SME adspend that would not have advertised on a digital property.

Moreover, for campaigning titles like The New European the print edition is the equivalent as the pins on a punk’s jacket – both a rallying cry for the cause and a dare to anyone to disagree. But for the most part the narrative has not changed since the start of print decline and – give or take the odd dead monarch – we’re never going to see circulation increases again.

At the root of that issue is the public’s waning interest in print as a vector for news. In the US, for example, only 10% of respondents to a Pew Research Centre study said they ‘often’ got news from print, compared to 60% who said they often got their news from smartphones or computers.

Meanwhile, the latest news consumption report from Ofcom found roughly similar if not worse figures in the UK – but also that newspapers were on par if not slightly worse than TV when it comes to key reasons for use among the public.

A graph from the Ofcom news consumption report showing the relative performance of TV, print, social media etc. in terms of 'trustworthiness' etc.

Newsprint, then, is now a luxury purchase for consumers, priced as a commodity by the publishers. There’s no easy way to square that circle: attempts to increase the price at the newsstand of print products is only likely to turn consumers off given the widespread availability of free news elsewhere.

At the same time, anyone hoping for a long, slow tail of managed print newspaper decline is likely to have given that hope up by now. Mass-market print is on its way out, without doubt – and while it will live on elsewhere as a luxury medium, it will never be the predominant source of news it once was.

For those of us who still love to see our name in smudged ink on cheap paper, that’s a sad but necessary thing to acknowledge.

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