It’s a fascinating time in the newspaper business,  especially from a research perspective. 2020 marks my fifth straight year polling newspapers in the U.S. and Canada about the overall health of the industry.  I’ve just completed crunching the numbers from the most recent survey and  will share some of the  information here. 

Interestingly, the number of papers in the U.S. participating in the survey increased compared to last year, with nearly 600 papers taking part this year, while just about 500 participated last year. At the same time, the number of Canadian papers participating decreased, meaning a lot more U.S. publishers participated in the 2020 survey. The number of participating papers on the West Coast was also low, compared to the rest of the country. In a nutshell, a significantly larger number of papers in all areas of the U.S., other than the West Coast, participated in the 2020 survey. 

It will take more than one column to cover everything we’ve learned, so let me share a couple of the most interesting trends that stand out from the 2020 numbers. I’m going to stick with results from the U.S., since the number of participants from Canada were too few to be statistically significant. 

First, it looks like papers in all areas of the U.S. are in similar boats. Regardless of size, ownership or other factors, papers in all areas recorded incredibly similar numbers by region.

While the Great Plains and Rocky Mountain States reported the fewest papers in “poor health” (11 percent each), the highest percentage in any region was just six points higher (Southeast: 17 percent). Very few papers in any region reported papers in “near death” health. The Southwest U.S. recorded the highest percentage of “near death” papers at 2 percent.

Overall 7.5 percent of U.S. papers report being “very healthy,” compared to 8.5 percent one year ago. In 2020, 30 percent report being “relatively healthy,” compared to 36 percent one year ago. “Not bad” stayed about the same, with 46 percent of U.S. papers reporting their health is “not bad” in 2020, compared to 44 percent who gave the same answer in 2019. In 2019, 10 percent of respondents noted their papers were in poor health, with 14 percent answering that way this year. “Near death” stayed the same at 1 percent. 

Add all those numbers together and we find that the industry seems to be a little less healthy in 2020, but not by much. Frankly, with the COVID-19 pandemic at its height while many papers were completing their surveys, I was surprised the numbers weren’t more foreboding. 

Each year, I’m fascinated by the numbers relating to newspaper ownership. It feels like I’m always hearing that the newspaper business is being swallowed up by venture capital groups. And while there may be some truth to that among papers owned  by national newspaper groups, that just doesn’t seem to be the case among most newspapers. 

Overall, 60 percent of newspapers report being independent and locally owned. That’s not much of a change from surveys going back to 2015. Small groups of one to five newspapers make up 12 percent of respondents, while mid-size groups (six to ten papers) make up 18 percent. Large regional groups account for 2 percent of papers in the survey, while national groups control 6 percent of newspapers in the U.S. 

How has ownership in newspapers changed over the past two years? Not much. Here’s the breakdown: 

85%: No change

8%: Moved from one family/ local owner to another  family/local owner

3%: Moved from one group to another group owner

2%: Moved from family/local owner to group owner

2%: Moved from group owner to family/local owner

The survey was very detailed, covering several aspects of the business of newspapers in 2020. A few other key findings: 

Staffs have gotten smaller since 2018, with 48 percent of U.S. papers reporting having cut the size of their news staff over the past two years, with 34 percent indicating a cut in their sales staffs. 

I know it’s a chicken/egg type of thing, but still it’s interesting that only 6 percent of newspapers who haven’t made staff cuts indicate being in poor health, compared to 14 percent of newspapers overall who answered that way. 

Of papers who have not cut staff, 51 percent report being in as good as, or better, health than two years ago. Compared to papers who reduced staff size (25 percent reported being in as good or better health than two years ago), these papers were significantly healthier. 

There’s a definite correlation between staff retention and overall health. 

From a personal perspective, there’s a definite “uptick” in the air in the newspaper business lately. I’m noticing a lot more newspapers, groups and associations calling to arrange consulting and training. From where I sit, it seems like newspapers are ready to begin growing again. 

I just passed my 800-word limit. In my next column, I’ll cover more results from the 2020 newspaper industry survey.

Kevin Slimp can be reached at kevin@kevinslimp.com.