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The Columbus Dispatch is suffering a four-year free-fall in circulation/readership, according to documents obtained exclusively from the Alliance for Audited Media.

The Columbus market is rapidly becoming a news desert, that is a place where news readership is dwindling and where increasing numbers of residents are either uninformed or poorly informed about their communities, the state, the United States and other nations.

What people know about the world around them is increasingly random via social media such as Facebook and websites that often lack verification and editing. This may be affecting our politics adversely as people are increasingly motivated by imagery and personality cults rather than by facts, reasoning and science.

Until around 2006, Ohio's government and its political leaders were held accountable by the major Ohio daily newspapers, who often would ardently investigate wrong-doing. The Coingate scandal, where Ohio taxpapers' money was invested in rare coins, led by the Toledo Blade and the Dispatch, resulted in Democrats winning all but one state administrative office and control of the Ohio House.

Republicans retook the Ohio House two years later and the governorship in 2010 and have not relinquished them since then.

In the ensuing 15 years, circulation (the number of copies of the paper sold) and readership (the number of people reading an individual copy, approximately 2) have cratered, the coverage of the Statehouse by newspapers has been gutted and Ohio's majority party, the Republicans, has run roughshod over the Capital, undaunted by massive charter education and utility graft-bagging scandals.

Why? This is partly because of a poorly informed public caused by the demise of newspapers and partly because increasing numbers of folks do not choose by be aware or informed about Ohio's government and politics.

In the heyday of newspapers, that began to end around 2000, the Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC) was the gold standard for learning about newspaper audiences through quarterly public reports.

Newspaper industry leaders turned against the ABC as their numbers began to drop sharply. It was replaced by the Alliance for Audited Media to meet the needs of the marketing and advertising community, but with much less frequency.

I requested data for the 2017 to 2021 period and it was furnished by the Alliance for Audited Media.

I am comparing the document labeled "6 months ended September 30, 2021. Subject to Audit" with the document labeled "Quarterly Data Report. Q3 (for the third quarter, July-September, 2017). Subject to Audit."

The Dispatch's Total Sunday Average Circulation (print and digital) for 2021 is 108,697.

The Dispatch's Total Sunday Average Circulation (print and digital) for 2017 is 157,217.

It shows a 48,520 or31% decline in 4 years.

If we estimate that readership averages 2 persons per copy, that amounts to a stunning loss of more than 97,000 readers in 4 years.

Put another way, the Dispatch apparently reported that it had (in round numbers) 314,000 readers in 2017 and now has 217,000.

Put still another way, the Dispatch apparently now reaches fewer than 1 out of 10 residents of the 2.3 million population of the Columbus metropolitan area (that includes surrounding counties).

And put one more way, local television may have eclipsed the print and online Dispatch as it is estimated that the three Columbus televisions stations that broadcast newscasts at 6 p.m. weekdays attract about 200,000 viewers. Each station operates websites that report news that probably add up to 50,000 more viewers on a typical weekday. Local television may have replaced the local newspaper as the leading source of local news because of the Dispatch's declining audience. Look for the TV stations to beef up their websites with more local news coverage.

Breaking down the numbers to print-only circulation, the Dispatch reported 144,054 Sunday print readers in 2017 compared to 52,042 in 2021, a tumble of 92,012 or 64%.

(It should be noted that I selected Sunday paid readership of theDispatch because it has the largest audience on Sunday, I selected 6 p.m. weekdays for local TV news (to which one does not have to pay to subscribe) because it has the largest weekly audience.)

(It should also be noted that while the Dispatch has a tight limit on the number of articles that can be read for free (without paying to subscribe), there are probably several thousand folks who read articles on for free each week)

(And it should be noted that more than half of the revenue for newspapers comes from subscribers while the rest comes from paid advertisements. Local TV stations get most of their revenue from advertisers but do receive payment from cable, satellite and streaming operators for the rights to carry the stations.)

(Yeah, okay, a few more should-be-noteds. The subject is far more complicated than total audience for newspapers, websites and TV stations. One relevant consideration is average length of time reading or viewing. Another is the quality of the audience. (Are they poor folks with little income or wealthy folks with lots of disposable income? Advertisers prefer the latter.) A third is the bombardment of emails promoting content that newspapers and TV stations are sending to their readers and viewers.

All this suggests that the 7-days-a-week print product is ceasing to be viable and is likely to be reduced in 2022. Other newspaper chains a decade ago began cutting their publications to two or three days a week. In a foreshadowing, the Dispatch's parent, Gannett Corp., ordered the cancellation of the Labor Day edition and just announced that the paper would be published only day each over the 3-day Christmas and New Year's weekends.

That means that the Dispatch will have not published 5 days out of 365 in 2021, but it stated that it would not issue refunds or extend subscriptions to make up for the missing papers. Such are the corporate policies of Gannett Corp., whose finances are increasingly dubious.

Gannett has been turning off readers of the Dispatch by imposing an early deadline on the Dispatch (and many others of its papers) so that the Dispatch is lacking late afternoon and evening sports event coverage as well as local breaking news in the next day's paper.

The paper increasingly is filled with feature stories and background articles, often irrelevant and verbose.

I have written more than once in my Columbus Media Insider column for the Columbus Free Press that Gannett is trying to kill the daily print readership habit and send readers to its digital sites. A 31 percent decline in four years shows it is reaching its goal. Sadly.

Looking at Sunday digital subscribers only, theDispatch reported 13,163 on the digital side in 2017 compared to 56,655 in 2021, a massive surge of 330%. This is good news, but it must be tempered by the following:

-- Many digital subscriptions are heavily discounted. Six months for $1 is widely available for the Dispatch.

-- When people are online, they jump from site to site like rabbits. Online readers spend seconds at one site while print readers spend minutes with the paper in their hands. Advertisers want you to stick around to consume their message and click to act on it.

-- While there is only one local general interest newspaper in Columbus, the Dispatch, there are dozens if not hundreds of websites and Facebook pages that comment on and cover local news and sports in the city. TheDispatch in print is unique. The Dispatch online just one of many. And while the Dispatch wants to be paid for access to its website, most of the others are free.

It is interesting that the Dispatch's 2017 statement to the Alliance for Audited Media contains an "Audience Summary" that suggests the Sunday Dispatch was reaching 535,000 readers. That seems like a bit high for 4 years ago.

The 2021 statement makes no audience estimates. I would guess that the average number of Sunday readers of the Dispatch and its website is 217,000 as stated above.

That's what happens when your audience is disappearing faster than you can sell $1 digital subscriptions.

 (John K. Hartman writes the Columbus Media Insider column for the Columbus Free Press. Send your comments to 

(Copyright, 2021, John K. Hartman, All Rights Reserved