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We all know how miserable 2009 was for newspapers; each quarter brought a new “historic decline” last year. But the latest figures from the…

newspapers on table
photo: Flickr/Alex Barth

We all know how miserable 2009 was for newspapers; each quarter brought a new “historic decline” last year. But the latest figures from the Newspaper Association of America are dramatically awful nevertheless. By the end of ’09, combined print and online newspaper ad revenues plunged 27.2 percent to $27.5 billion from $37.8 billion in ’08. Online, often considered a bright spot, also saw unprecedented lows, though nothing as acute as the $10 billion drop the combined revs showed. Newspaper websites’ ad dollars fell 11.8 percent, a tremendous drop compared to the 1.8 percent slide those revenues took in ’08.

This was the sixth year that the NAA charted online revenues. The contrast of the past two years with the preceding four are stark. In 2004, the first year the NAA had comparisons for, newspapers’ online revenues grew 26.7 percent to $1.5 billion. That growth peaked a year later with 31.5 percent gains, which reached $2 billion. In ’06, newspaper website dollars’ growth rate slipped a bit with a 31.4 percent increase over the previous year, while ’07 produced a healthy 18 percent rise. Still, if you want to look at the bright side, since 2004, newspapers’ online revs have shot up 125 percent over that period.

Naturally, ’09 was something of an aberration, given the global recession. Although many major newspapers have returned to profitability in the past few quarters and ad declines have slowed, it’s hard to imagine a significant turnaround for the ad side. So while newspapers have cut their way to profitability, the likelihood of a fairly anemic recovery will force newspapers to keep costs low. About the best publishers can hope for at this point is that the “historic declines” will not continue into this year.

In time, digital will make up more than the 10 percent sliver of the business and revenue will rise again. But online is unlikely to make up the print losses — in particular, print-only and classifieds were down 28 percent and 38.1 percent, respectively — anytime soon, if ever.

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