As bad as these figures are for most newspapers, even they mask the size of the real problem. In 1977, Australia’s population was around 14 million; in 2012, it is around 22 million — an increase of 57 per cent. This means that, just to keep pace with population growth, newspaper circulations needed to increase by 57 per cent over those 35 years.
To put it another way, the apparent drop in The Age’s circulation of 25 per cent was a real drop of 82 per cent. The apparent rise of 6 per cent for The Daily Telegraph was a real drop of 51 per cent. Even the apparent rise of 31 per cent for The Australian was a real drop of 26 per cent. (It’s notable that these two Murdoch-owned newspapers have done so well, relatively.)
It could be argued that online readership has reduced the importance of these declines, and that’s true as far as it goes. But online readership is a relatively recent development, it’s only one-twelfth the size of print sales, and it garners nowhere near the revenue of print sales.
Book sales have suffered a similar decline:
One final, eerie point: the drop in newspaper sales is very similar to (although not as bad as) the drop in the sales value of printed books over the same period. Thirty-five years ago, even a small publisher could expect to sell 3,000 hardback copies of any given book, and then around 5,000 paperback copies. Today, the average print-run is close to 2,000 copies (in paperback), and total sales of 5,000 would be considered a triumph.
Rosenbloom speculates that Fairfax might abandon their paper versions altogether:
This is not sustainable, so there’ll clearly be major changes ahead. The Fairfax group, in particular, can’t possibly keep going the way it is. For years, there’s been scuttlebutt that they’re planning to drop their print editions completely, and I suspect that this is true. But even this might not save them.