A common argument, accepted by many for its simple narrative, is that digital news killed print news. But the reality is more complicated.
Newspaper print circulation number rose until about 2005 in most Western countries, along with rising populations. That increase, however, masked the fact that household penetration began declining in the 1970s, reaching about 25-35% in those countries at the millennium. This household trend began 3 decades before the appearance of the internet news and led to advertisers to progressively reduce newspaper advertising. Advertisers were unhappy with newspapers long before the internet.
The internet made it possible for many to use it capabilities for inexpensive marketing and personal marketing that cost little and took the place of print real estate, automobile, employment and other classified advertising. Internet advertising became free or low cost. The growth of internet advertising revenue never matched the amount of money leaving print because it was not a true competitor for advertising revenue, rather a destroyer of it. The greatest bulk of internet ad revenue today is not for retail adverting but for search and placement fees. The internet did not "take" large amounts of advertising money from print; it took away the need for advertisers to expend as much.
Digital news did effect print circulation, but not as dramatic as some suggest. Most news readers who were not heavy consumers left newspapers between 1970 and 2000, opting to get smaller doses of news from radio, television, and cable. When digital news appeared, many began giving up those other sources of news as well.
After the appearance of digital news distribution, a large numbers of hardcore newspapers readers added digital news to their reading habits to obtain more current information and to get news and analysis from several sources. Over time, some have reduced their reliance on print, but most remain consumer of both.
Most circulation being lost today appears due to lack of interest in news, inability to attract new readers, and mortality of existing print readers, and not large numbers of regular readers abandoning print.
The changes have produced some newspaper deaths, but the number of deaths is far lower than experienced in the 1960s and 1970s when a great wave of newspaper mortality occurred.
Today, print circulation serves about 20-30% of households and most papers have adapted to the new environment by adopting digital strategies, raising prices on subscriptions, and finding new digital and other revenues. Despite the rhetoric, newspaper finances are reasonable for competitors in a highly competitive market environment. Newspapers have had to work harder and adjust financial performance expectations downward—but most still make returns 2 to 3 times that of average businesses.
It is a competitive business now, but it is not yet dead.