VA News Reader

Trend Line: Newspaper readership is up – on digital platforms

As readership trends continue to evolve for the nation’s newspapers, the Pew Research Center, which keeps close watch on such things, released data recently that shows some arrows pointing in a skyward direction when it comes to newspaper circulation.  And the upswinging pendulum is worth noting…and learning from.

Amid general declines in print circulation over the past few years, the bright spot shows increases in digital circulation – up 30% in 2020 from the previous year for weekday circulation and a bump of 29% for Sundays. (Comparable print figures showed a dip of 12% and 10%, respectively.)

Using non-national newspapers from New York State as a proxy, the Pew study found the websites of the 46 newspapers attracted 7.6 million monthly unique visitors in the fourth quarter of 2020, up 9% from the previous year.  (Add in four national newspapers into the mix, and the totals almost double –13.9 million unique visitors in the fourth quarter, a jump of 14% from 2019.)

Taking a longer view, the average number of monthly unique visitors to local news websites is up 44% since 2014, the first year that Pew started tracking such data. 

In Virginia, our own anecdotal observations suggest a similar trend as many local newspapers have not only made the transition to a print-digital hybrid model, but some have gone digital only, and with encouraging results.

According to Virginia Press Association data, monthly page views on Virginia newspaper websites increased approximately 30 percent from 2020 to 2021 to 106.1 million. The 160 VPA member newspapers garnered more than 26 million monthly unique visitors to local news websites, up eight percent during the same period.  Newspapers such as the Henrico Citizen have abandoned their print editions and are online only. After the Citizen made the transition, the paper’s website saw a 300% increase in traffic, from 20,000 readers a month to 80,000. Others such as The Harrisonburg Citizen have always been online only.

Much of the traffic can be attributed to the strategic way in which newspapers are marketing their content. Posting articles on Facebook and Twitter has proven to be an effective means for generating click-through traffic.  E-news updates that appear in readers’ inboxes also include links that readers can click on in order to read the full story.

At the Virginia Press Association, we’re working with member newspapers on a variety of digital initiatives to give them the tools for taking advantage of the growing popularity of online readership.