Traditional print newspapers’ current troubles have roots early in the twentieth century. In 1880, newspapers’ revenue structure was quite diversified. Subscription revenue and print revenue was evenly balanced, with each accounting for about 40% of total revenue. Other revenue (job printing, book binding, and other miscellaneous revenue sources) amounted to about 20% of total revenue.
By 1929, newspapers’ subscription revenue was only about one third of advertising revenue. Periodicals, which were usually reported with newspapers in Census Bureau reports, typically had slightly higher subscription revenue than did newspapers. The regularly reported data for newspapers and periodicals clearly shows subscription revenue dropping continually relative to advertising revenue from 1880 to 1929. Occasionally reported data for newspapers, along with the fact that newspapers generated about twice as much revenue as periodicals, implies that the newspaper and periodicals’ trend is a good indicator for newspapers alone. The newspaper business grew strongly from 1880 to 1929. Newspapers’ success as an advertising vehicle drove that growth.
By 2007, newspapers’ subscription revenue amounted to only 19% of total revenue, while advertising and other revenue amounted to 69% and 12%, respectively. A major challenge for newspapers is to grow rapidly subscription revenue and other revenue and to achieve a revenue structure more like that of newspapers in 1880.
Updated note: Here’s comprehensive data on the revenue structure of U.S. newspapers and periodicals from 1880 to 2007. Available also as an Excel file. Some additional discussion of historical print media economics.
Update 2: Data now through 2008 via the 2008 Services Annual Survey.