This report analyzes data on more than 9,500 daily and weekly papers in the U.S. at three intervals between 2004 and 2016. It draws on statistics in the 2004 and 2014 Editor & Publisher Newspaper Data Book and 2016 E&P data accessed online, in addition to information shared by the consulting firm BIA/Kelsey. Faculty and researchers in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Media and Journalism supplemented the information in these databases with extensive reporting and research. They conducted interviews with industry analysts and professionals, and analyzed U.S. Census data, as well as the financial records and press releases issued by newspaper owners.
This report relied initially on analysis of proprietary media statistics compiled by BIA/Kelsey. This was cross-referenced with and supplemented by data from the E&P’s 2004 and 2014 Newspaper Data Book, as well as online data accessed June 30, 2016, and merged into the UNC database. This data was then cleaned and updated to reflect recent changes in status for the newspapers in the database.
Both of the large databases we analyzed and used to build the UNC database have the type of reporting errors that are inherent in any survey. Both relied on the accurate feedback of respondents. BIA/Kelsey conducted a telephone survey of newspaper executives and managers while Editor & Publisher employed a digital and mail survey of senior executives at individual papers. When we spotted errors, we corrected them in our database and will continue to update our analysis as new information becomes available. If you detect an error, please fill out and submit the “corrections” form available on our website newspaperownership.com/.
Building the Database
Industry representatives and analysts estimate there are 11,000 newspapers in the country. Because the focus of this report is on local news organizations that produce and publish journalism oriented toward a specific geographic region or community, or ethnic group, we excluded the following newspapers and publications from the UNC database and analysis of trends:
- National newspapers: The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and USA Today.
- Shoppers or similar free advertisement-based works that do not contain local reporting produced by journalists employed by the paper.
- Topic-specific publications such as business journals and lifestyle magazines.
- Newspapers published less than once a week.
As a result of these adjustments, our numbers may differ from those listed on the websites of some companies or in other databases.
In UNC’s 2004 database, there are 8,591 local newspapers – 6,124 from BIA/Kelsey and 2,467 additional ones from the E&P Newspaper Data Book or firsthand research and reporting. In UNC’s 2014 database, there are 7,927 newspapers – 6,892 from BIA Kelsey and 1,035 from E&P. In UNC’s 2016 database, updated to reflect E&P statistics accessed on June 30, 2016, there are 7,863 newspapers.
Each newspaper entry in the three databases has the following variables: year, name, frequency (daily/weekly), number of days published per week, city, state, parent company and total circulation, as audited by the Alliance for Audited Media (AAM) or reported in other official databases. Each newspaper was then assigned a latitude and longitude, which was used to identify the county where each newspaper was physically located. To be able to identify whether newspapers were located in a rural or an urban area, each was assigned to a corresponding group from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural-Urban Continuum Codes (RUCC) based on the county in which they were located. Additionally, poverty data from each county was merged into the dataset.
The circulation statistics in our database are primarily print-based, an admittedly imperfect measure since they do not count the increasing number of people that access local news online. However, there is currently no widely used and easily accessible tracking system (similar to AAM) that reports online readership data for the wide range of newspapers in this study, especially the thousands of local papers in small and mid-sized markets. Therefore, print circulation is used as a proxy for measuring the decline in both reach and influence of traditional newspapers.
More than a third of the newspapers in our proprietary database changed ownership during the past decade. Increasingly, many dailies are also purchasing small weeklies in adjacent communities. Whenever possible, we attempted to determine parent company for every newspaper – whether corporate or family-owned.
Because of the size and complexity of our database, our in-depth analysis of trends focused on the 25 largest companies (in terms of papers owned) in 2004, 2014 and 2016. Between 2004 and 2014, there was extensive turnover in the list of the largest companies.
UNC researchers tracked mergers and acquisitions in the newspaper industry from 2004 to 2016 and assessed corporate strategies by identifying and examining:
- Public corporate documents, including quarterly and annual reports released by the individual companies and by Dirks, Van Essen & Murray, the leading merger and acquisition firm in the U.S. newspaper industry.
- Numerous news articles about individual purchases and business decisions.
- Statements made by executives that were in press releases, news articles or industry presentations.
- Analytical reports and interviews with industry representatives and analysts.
After extensive reporting and research, each of the largest 25 companies in 2004, 2014 and 2016 was categorized in one of three ways:
- Private Companies: This group includes large companies, such as Hearst Corp., which owns a portfolio of media properties, including cable networks and digital enterprises. It also includes the smaller self-described “independent, family-owned companies,” such as Boone Newspapers, which owns 74 publications in small and mid-sized communities throughout the South.
- Public Companies: These publicly traded entities arose in the latter part of the 20th century and, until recently, were among the largest, in terms of circulation. They include Gannett, Knight Ridder, Lee Enterprises and McClatchy. Most of these companies went public with the stated purpose of raising funds so they could buy other newspapers in attractive high-growth markets.
- Investment Companies: This category has arisen in the past decade and has a different ownership philosophy and financial structure from the traditional newspaper owners. It includes privately held entities, such as Community Newspaper Holdings Inc., owned and operated by the Retirement Systems of Alabama, and publicly traded ones, such as New Media/Gatehouse. Companies were classified in this category if they met at least five of the eight characteristics in the chart below:
The maps in the report provide insights into the rapid growth in the number of investment-owned newspapers and consolidation in the industry. It also suggests areas that may be at risk of losing their prime source of local news – most often the local newspapers – and thus becoming a news desert.
UNC researchers used the data to map the locations of the newspapers as accurately as possible. Both the BIA/Kelsey and E&P 2014 databases incorrectly listed the parent company or city location for many newspapers, especially the smaller ones. UNC researchers attempted to review and correct errors, and then assign the newspaper to the city where it was actually located. There are no street addresses in the UNC database.
About the BIA/Kelsey Database
BIA/Kelsey, a research and advisory company focused on local advertising and marketing, began tracking newspaper ownership in the United States in 2004. The organization employs a telemarketing team that calls individual newspapers and collects information from employee respondents. The data on local newspapers provided to UNC by BIA/Kelsey included the following: frequency of publication (daily/weekly), number of days published, newspaper name, city and state where newspaper is located, local owner of newspapers, parent company of owner, circulation (daily), circulation (Sunday), circulation (free) and circulation (paid).
About the Editor & Publisher Database
Editor & Publisher began publishing an annual Newspaper Data Book in 1921. The Data Book has information on more than 25,000 companies and more than 160 data fields. Data is collected through mail and email surveys and supplemented by telephone research. Up-to-date data can be accessed online. UNC researchers used E&P to supplement and correct incomplete or inaccurate 2004 and 2014 data from BIA/Kelsey. Most recently, E&P’s 2016 data, accessed online June 30, 2016, was used to update the information on the individual newspapers in UNC’s database.