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Murdoch's Journal Threatens to Regain No. 1 Circ Spot

Weekday Numbers at Business Daily Held as USA Today Plunged

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Here's something to make Rupert Murdoch smile: His Wall Street Journal is threatening to reclaim its weekday circulation crown from USA Today for the first time since September 1999.

Rupert Murdoch
Rupert Murdoch Credit: AP
USA Today still has the country's biggest Monday-through-Friday circulation, averaging 2,113,725 over the six months ended in March, according to the new Audit Bureau of Circulations report, which showed generally dismal results across the industry. Wall Street Journal is No. 2 for weekday circulation.

But USA Today fell 7.5% from the period a year earlier. The Journal, on the other hand, posted the only increase among top 25 weekday papers, a 0.6% bump that lifted it to 2,082,189.

If USA Today falls another two percentage points while The Journal holds steady, The Journal will once again claim the largest paid weekday circulation in the U.S.

Guests get a choice
Starting June 1, moreover, Marriott will stop automatically delivering newspapers to guests' doors, instead asking them to choose between USA Today, The Journal, the local paper or nothing. USA Today has estimated it will lose 3% of its circulation as a result. The Journal hasn't offered an estimate, but hopes the new choice means new readers.

And the No. 1 spot isn't meaningless, either -- just ask the current best-seller. "It says something about the vitality of your product and your brand," said Susan Lavington, senior VP-marketing at USA Today.

But neither USA Today nor The Journal say the top-line weekday figure is their favorite measure. USA Today prefers to exclude The Journal's 383,199 electronic editions, which include paid subscribers to the Journal website, Kindle subscriptions and electronic replicas. They count as paid under Audit Bureau rules, but USA Today argues that print advertisers care about paid print copies. "Really, that's what print buyers are looking at, a print metric," Ms. Lavington said. "The online piece, while I certainly understand and respect what the Journal has done, is just not a competitive issue for us and our advertisers."

The Journal, on the other hand, doesn't think much of USA Today's nearly 1.3 million copies that come from the "other paid" category, which includes legions of copies distributed to hotel guests at no cost to the reader. "We look at individually paid as the measure of quality and success in circulation," said Paul Bascobert, CMO of the Consumer Media Group at Dow Jones.

"In most hotels, guests are not given a choice," he added. "The hallways are littered with USA Todays."

The Journal reported 916,046 average individually paid weekday circulation when readers paid at least half price for their paper. USA Today reported 845,307.

a measure of loyalty?
You can keep arguing over circulation metrics, of course, seemingly forever. USA Today says the preponderance of newsstand sales among its individually paid circulation shows its strong appeal to readers. "The majority of The Wall Street Journal's individually paid is in subscription, whereas the majority of our individually paid is actually in single-copy sales," Ms. Lavington said, "people walking up and paying full price."

The Journal execs think that's not something to brag about. "It says that USA Today has a hard time getting people to commit to a relationship with USA Today," Mr. Bascobert said.

In any event, the battle continues. The Journal is already out e-mailing people with instructions on making sure Marriott always gives them The Journal. USA Today is working on its own effort along those lines. It also said Hilton has renewed its commitment to give guests USA Today for another three years.

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