NEWSPAPER CIRCULATION GAINS SLIGHTLY

46 of Top 100 Metro Dailies Post Increases

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- The most recent circulation numbers for the nation's newspapers, as always, testify to long-term trends affecting a mature media based almost entirely around long-running brands holding down monopolies over their markets.

As such, there are generally very small swings in readership numbers from period to period, and those swings generally track the circulation slippage with which the industry has long contended.

Good news
Still, the most recent circulation numbers for newspapers released by the Audit Bureau of Circulations, covering the six months ended Sept. 30, contain news to cheer a surprising number of newspaper publishers.

The biggest grins -- once again -- grace the faces of those at the New York Post. The Post, a tabloid that is obsessed with the rich and famous and is perhaps best understood as the Us Weekly of the newspaper world, cranked up its numbers 10.5% in the last six months. The Post is the sole American daily owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., and has imported Murdochian price strategies -- its cover price of 25 cents is significantly lower than those of its locally published rivals.

But Lachlan Murdoch,

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the Post's publisher, downplayed the importance of the price point for the paper's gains, pointing out that the 25-cent price had been in effect since September 2000. He attributed the increases to new color capacity and new editorial leadership.

However -- despite Mr. Murdoch's assertions to the contrary -- the Post's daily circulation as reported by ABC has been on a steady climb since the price cut hit.

Big gains in Texas
Three of Texas' bigger dailies -- San Antonio Express-News, Fort Worth Star-Telegram and The Dallas Morning News -- were all among the industry's biggest gainers in daily circulation.

Two titles in the triumvirate of national newspapers posted smaller gains, with the Wall Street Journal nudging up 1.1% and the New York Times gaining 0.3% -- a small leap for a daily still rolling out an ambitious national expansion, but results that nonetheless imply that circulation gains made post-Sept. 11 are being retained.

'USA Today'
The nation's biggest daily, USA Today, is still stinging from a post-Sept.11 falloff in its substantial travel- and hotel-related circulation and declined 0.6% to 2.1 million. A USA Today spokeswoman said that in August travel-related circulation returned to its pre-Sept. 11 levels.

One veteran newspaper observer said the results skewed unusually positively for major metro markets. (In the past, key urban markets have seen substantial circulation erosion.)

Of particular note, said David Cole, a newspaper consultant and editor and publisher of trade newsletter The Cole Papers, were positive results in dailies in and around New York City, among them the Post, the Times, the Long Island-based Newsday, the Newark Star-Ledger and the Bergen Record, in tony Northern New Jersey.

NYC: Focused on news
"I think it's further fallout from Sept. 11," he said. "There's no question people in New York City are more concerned about news, more concerned about the possibility of going to war with Iraq."

Mort Zuckerman's New York Daily News, though, saw its daily numbers slip 2.5%. And the Washington Post Co.'s Washington Post, which covers an area one would expect would be similarly transfixed by post-9/11 events, saw daily circulation fall 1.8%

He also attributed strong Sunday performances across Knight Ridder's stable of dailies -- which include the Philadelphia Inquirer (up 2.1%), San Jose Mercury News (up 1.1%), Miami Herald (up 1.6%) and the Kansas City Star (up 0.6%) -- to more aggressive Sunday pricing strategies.

Even break
Despite the glimpses of good news, though, newspaper-circulation performance remains far from a slam dunk, even when appetites for information are whetted by tumultuous times. Of the top 100 papers, 46 posted daily gains, while 48 posted declines. (Six were flat or had no relevant comparison.)

Mr. Cole took a philosophical view of such a situation.

"A Sisyphean environment," he said. "Pushing the rock up the hill. Sometimes its rolls back, and sometimes we get it up."

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