Abstract: Despite industry-wide efforts in digitally transforming news organizations, research showed that most newspapers’ legacy products still outperformed the same newspaper’s digital offerings in terms of engagement, circulation, readership, pricing, advertising, and subscription revenue—all by a wide margin. But Covid-19 created an unprecedented scenario where the need for instant, local news updates, the fear of contacting anything tangible, and financial stress may have changed consumer behavior. To assess the state of the newspaper industry, this study analyzes short-term and long-term trends in US newspapers’ digital and print circulation before and during the pandemic. The analysis considered price, an important factor often neglected in discussions about newspaper demand. Utilizing rich industry data, this study analyzed 18 US metro daily newspapers’ circulation trends during 2016–2022. The results revealed that digital circulation increased rapidly after the onset of Covid-19 but subsequently decreased after reaching the peak in Q3 2021. Print circulation continued its rapid decline since 2016, accompanied by continuous, substantial price hikes for print subscriptions—a typical print subscription now costs over $1,000 a year. Despite circulation declines, the print edition remains the core product, with more subscribers paying far more than digital subscribers. Because of the immense price gap (6 to 1), the seemingly promising increase in digital subscriptions during Covid-19 could not generate nearly as much revenue to cover the loss on the print side, resulting in a substantial loss in total subscription revenue. The state of the US newspaper industry needs immediate attention.
Keywords: Covid-19; digital subscription; digital transformation; newspaper circulation; newspapers; subscription revenue