Newspapers Circ Continues Decline; Publishers Tout Online Gains

Industry Loses 1.2 Million Readers in Six Months

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NEW YORK ( -- This morning's semi-annual report on paid newspaper circulation delivered nothing to change the portrait of an industry losing customers.
The newspaper industry has received the latest round of bad news.
The newspaper industry has received the latest round of bad news.

For the six months that ended March 31, the average paid weekday circulation of all 770 U.S. newspapers reporting declined to 45.4 million, down 2.5% from the equivalent prior period, according to an analysis by the Newspaper Association of America of figures compiled by the Audit Bureau of Circulations. That's a loss of nearly 1.2 million paying readers.

Last November's report also showed a topline 2.6% decline in paying weekday readers, in that case among 786 papers reporting, meaning 1.2 million paying readers were lost then too, according to the NAA.

Drop-offs outnumber gains
Among the big urban papers, drop-offs vastly outnumbered gains. The Baltimore Sun, for example, lost 3% of its paid circulation, falling to a paid weekday average of 236,317 from 243,747 one year prior.

In Philadelphia, The Inquirer dropped nearly 5.5% to 350,457 and the Daily News sank 9.3% to 116,590. Both are being shopped for buyers by the McClatchy Co., which agreed to buy them as part of its acquisition of Knight Ridder, but were immediately returned to the block. Large papers also suffered in Atlanta, Cleveland, Houston, Miami, Minneapolis and Seattle.

Of the top 25 newspapers by weekday circulation in today's report, 20 lost paid circulation during the six months that ended March 31, compared with their figures for the equivalent period a year earlier.

None of the top 25 that added paying circulation -- USA Today, The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Star-Ledger of Newark and The Detroit Free Press -- moved the needle up by even 1%. But six lost more than 5%, lead by The San Francisco Chronicle, which gave up 15.6%.

De-emphasize the results
The Newspaper Association of America moved quickly to de-emphasize the results. "Both circulation and readership are important, valid measures of the newspaper audience, but counting only the number of units sold on a given day obscures the actual use of newspapers and consumer exposure to advertising," said John F. Sturm, president-CEO, NAA.

"Our continuing discussions with the advertising community and third-party research we have seen tell us that audience is important to advertisers because it provides a more accurate measure of newspapers' total reach," he said. "The research also points out how engaged the newspaper audience is with the media -- in print and online."

Newspaper publishers -- and journalists, investors and related businesses -- indeed have some reasons for optimism. Last year's shareholder revolt at Knight Ridder notwithstanding, newspaper companies continue to throw off healthy profits; their Web sites, too, are attracting readers online.

The newspaper association said today that the online audience for newspaper reached record levels in the first quarter: Citing Nielsen/NetRatings data, it said newspaper Web sites averaged 56 million users, an 8% increase in reach of first-quarter 2005.

The top three
Of the top three papers, Gannett's category-leader USA Today essentially held flat, improving average paid weekday circulation by 0.09% to total 2.27 million. At No. 2, The Wall Street Journal from Dow Jones saw average paid weekday circulation slip a full percentage point to 2.05 million. And The New York Times expanded 0.5% to 1.14 million.

But the fourth, Tribune's Los Angeles Times, gave up 5.4% and fell to average paid weekday circulation of 851,832. And The Washington Post, fifth on the list, slipped 3.67% to 724,242.

Although New York's tabloids narrowed the distance between, The Daily News held on to its top spot, even if it lost 3.7% of its average weekday paying circulation, falling to 708,477. Rival New York Post also lost ground, just not as much -- average paid circulation fell 0.7% to 673,379.

The New York Times Co. may take pride this morning that its flagship paper's print edition eked out growth, but another of its properties, The Boston Globe, fared much worse, falling 8.5% to 397,288.

Today's report did not include New Orleans' Times-Picayune, which deferred reporting because of the effects of Hurricane Katrina. But it marked the return The Tribune Co.'s Newsday in Long Island which has been absent since the report of March 2004 because of censure by the audit bureau.
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