Bad news for newspapers: ABC's figures show circ falls

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Newspaper circulation figures just released by the Audit Bureau of Circulations tell a now-familiar story.

Overall, according to the number-crunchers at the Newspaper Association of America, the 785 newspapers that reported daily circulation for the six months ended Sept. 30 posted an overall circulation drop of 0.41% from the previous year's period. Sunday circulation was down 0.71%.

But those figures only hint at a darker truth, said David Cole, publisher of the industry newsletters NewsInc. and The Cole Papers.

"This was an Olympics quarter," he said, "and we should have seen [circulation] ahead of last year because of that. It's very disconcerting to find the industry as a whole down."

DOUBLE WHAMMY

This year's presidential race has yet to positively impact circulation as well, he added, and the failure of both major events to spike circulation represents a double whammy of sorts. "Even if [circulation] is just a fraction down," said Mr. Cole, "it should have been up."

Bill Johnson, NAA's director of circulation marketing, disagreed with Mr. Cole's analysis. "The Olympics are good for" circulation, he said, "but they aren't enough to make or break a year."

In addition, Mr. Johnson added, the major political events of the year thus far -- meaning the conventions and debates -- tended to be TV-oriented spectacles unlikely to affect circulation widely -- with the possible exception of Beltway bible Washington Post (which posted a weekday circulation gain of 0.02%).

Still, optimism over the tally was hard to come by.

The results are "not a surprise," said Kevin Lavalla, managing director/newspaper publishing at media investment banker Veronis, Suhler & Associates. "Things are pretty stagnant."

MORE STAGNANT

Some areas are more stagnant than others. According to NAA figures, newspapers with circulation of more than 500,000 dipped only 0.02% in daily circulation, and newspapers with circulations between 250,000 and 499,999 rose 0.43%. Dailies with circulations between 25,000 and 49,999, however, fell 1.24%, and those beneath 25,000 dropped 1.84%.

"The larger the paper, the easier it is to hold your circulation," said Shaun Higgins, director of marketing and sales for the Spokane, Wash., Spokesman-Review. Mr. Higgins explained that larger, more regional papers inevitably poach the circulation of smaller dailies serving smaller markets -- which have more limited resources to chase fewer readers in smaller markets.

Sunday circulation figures further bear out Mr. Higgins' point. Papers with circulation of more than 500,000 increased 0.04%, but papers with circulations between 250,000 and 499,999 dropped 1.4%; those with circulations between 50,000 and 99,999 dropped 1.11%; and those with less than 25,000 circulation fell off 0.98%.

WEEKDAY WINNERS

The three largest newspapers all posted weekday gains. The Wall Street Journal's circulation rose 0.6% to 1,762,751; USA Today's rose 1.3% to 1,692,666; The New York Times' rose 1% to 1,097,180.

The New York Times has been aggressively pursuing a strategy to become more of a national daily by increasing its emphasis on attracting national advertisers and rolling out distribution deals that will get the daily into additional markets. Seen in this light, the Times' 1% gain in circulation -- not much better than it had reported in previous years -- may seem a tad underwhelming.

But Mr. Cole said that given industrywide circulation trends for newspapers, the Times looked like it was doing just fine.

The fourth largest daily posted a significant loss, as the Los Angeles Times' daily circulation dropped 4.2% to 1,033,399. Mark Willes -- CEO of the Los Angeles Times' parent company Times Mirror Co. until Tribune Co. purchased it in March -- had made boosting circulation at the Times by 500,000 copies a major goal of his tenure.

DOWN IN CLEVELAND

The biggest decline among the top 25 newspapers was reported by the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Its non-Sunday circulation dropped 5.6% to 364,708, and its Sunday circulation fell 3.3% to 484,034. The Tribune Co. flagship, the Chicago Tribune, struggled through some choppy waters as well, with its weighted average weekday circulation falling 1.4% to 617,097.

The biggest gainers among the nation's largest dailies, by a wide margin, were the Denver Post, owned by MediaNews Group, and its competitor Rocky Mountain News, owned by E.W. Scripps Co. Monday through Saturday, the Post's circulation shot up 11.6% to 420,033 and the Rocky Mountain News' rose 7.7% to 426,465. On Sundays the Post's circ went up 13%, while the Rocky Mountain News' went up 4.99%.

CHEAP SUBSCRIPTIONS

The two had been fighting a closely contested battle for dominance in the Denver market, which resulted in the papers discounting subscriptions to 1› a day in some cases. Those days of furiously chasing readers will be over, should the dailies' May announcement of a joint operating agreement meet with governmental approval.

Should that happen, observers expect those rapid circulation gains to disappear.

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