After Katrina, Gulf Coast Papers Shrink

Hurricane Katrina was one of the most destructive natural disasters in U.S. history, and on the fifth anniversary of the storm, the focus has been on remembering the human toll and highlighting measures to prevent a similar disaster in the future. But how have local newspapers fared since the hurricane hit?

Not terribly well, judging by declining circulation figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulations for the last couple of years.

But it's hard to tell how much of this is due to Katrina, and how much merely reflects the perfect storm afflicting the newspaper business in general over the last few years. Indeed, in most places, print circulation has continued to fall even after the population returned to pre-Katrina levels.

Moreover, comparable circulation losses were seen in places that were relatively unaffected by the disaster.

The most visible example of population loss is New Orleans itself: From a pre-Katrina total of 461,600, the city's population fell by over half to 223,000 after the storm. Since then, it climbed steadily to reach 355,000 last year -- still down 23% from its pre-Katrina level.



With over half the city living elsewhere at one time, it's no surprise that the New Orleans Times-Picayune took a big circulation hit, with daily circulation falling 40% from 261,573 in March 2005 to 157,068 in March 2010, according to ABC.

Some smaller coastal towns and newspapers were similarly hard-hit by Katrina.

Mississippi's Harrison County, home to Biloxi and Gulfport, saw its total population fall 11% from 192,000 before Katrina to 172,000 in 2006, but has since rebounded to about 182,000 in 2009. However, daily circulation at the local Sun Herald newspaper, owned by McClatchy, fell from 47,984 in March 2005 to 42,768 in March 2006. It continued to sink throughout the post-Katrina recovery, falling to 37,458 in March 2010. (That's down 22% from five years before.)

These are major drops, but they are not out of line with the rest of the newspaper business. For comparison, total weekday circulation for American newspapers in general fell from about 46.5 million in 2005 to about 30.4 million in 2009: a 35% drop. This suggests the upheaval caused by Katrina at most served to accelerate an inexorable decline.

To underline this point, newspaper circulations also tumbled at inland towns whose populations remained stable over this period.

While the population of Shreveport, Louisiana held steady at around 200,000 from 2005-2010, The Shreveport Times saw its average weekday circulation decline 29% to 44,067. Likewise, the population of Jackson, Mississippi was stable at around 250,000 from 2005-2010 -- but the Jackson Clarion-Ledger's weekday circ fell 34% to 65,300.

The displacement of Gulf Coast inhabitants may have helped offset structural circulation declines at the Baton Rouge Advocate, where the average weekday circulation has remained basically flat at around 95,000 over the last five years. Over the same period, the population of the Baton Rouge metro area swelled from a pre-Katrina total of 729,000 to 787,000 last year.

Next story loading loading..