PRICE HIKES, WEATHER CHILL NEWSPAPERS

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Old Man Winter's grip on much of the nation is blamed for freezing single-copy newspaper sales, while price increases and other factors created their own chill in other parts of the country.

Newspapers reported exceptionally poor circulation for the six months ended March 31, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations. Seventeen of the nation's top 20 dailies reported circulation declines from the same period a year ago. The Wall Street Journal was flat, while the Chicago Tribune was up less than 1%. Only the Dallas Morning News showed a strong gain, up 6.4%, among the top 20.

Papers outside the top 20 showing gains of 3% or more included The (Baltimore) Sun, The Denver Post, Investor's Business Daily, The Memphis (Tenn.) Commercial Appeal, San Antonio Express-News, San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News, St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times, The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot, (Rochester, N.Y.) Democrat & Chronicle, Sacramento (Calif.) Bee and Las Vegas Review-Journal.

The Boston Globe, Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, Newsday, USA Today and The Washington Post blamed the weather for their circulation woes. But other factors also came into play.

The Wall Street Journal reported flat circulation at 1.86 million following an increase in subscription prices in mid-1993.

USA Today attributed its 4.6% decline primarily to a shift from single-copy street sales to "blue chip" sales bought by hotels or airlines and distributed to their customers, said Steve Anderson, media relations manager. Blue chip sales are counted separately by the audit bureau. USA Today's total circulation is only off by 10,000 due to the weather, he said.

The New York Times saw its circulation slip 3.4% due to price increases and the weather, as well as a lack of high-profile news stories like the presidential election, which boosted last year's results. The Washington Post similarly attributed its 0.3% decline to weather and last year's boost due to the presidential election and inaugural.

"We've been aggressively and continually raising the home delivery and single-copy prices of the paper as part of a long-term move to [get more] revenue from the circulation side rather than the advertising side," said Bill Adler, corporate communications director for The New York Times Co. "Also, we speculate that the weather had something to do with [the decline] since single-copy sales are down this unusually harsh winter. Also, we think a very strong interest in news [with the presidential elections and the new administration] pumped up end-of-1992 numbers."

The Los Angeles Times attributed its 3% circulation decline to the depressed southern California economy as well as its ongoing plan to eliminate costly circulation outside core markets. The paper is gaining in key competitive markets, like Orange County and the San Fernando Valley/Ventura County area, a spokeswoman said.

Newsday was adversely affected by the weather, price increases and a production slowdown. Price increases and a glitch in new computer software used to track subscribers caused the Sarasota (Fla.) Herald-Tribune's circulation to slide 10.3%.

But the New York Post, which has suffered through multiple ownership bids, publishing disruptions, staff defections and Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings, had the largest circulation decline at 10.8%. It's now trying to rebuild under new News Corp. ownership, which officially took control in October.

"We came into a situation that was traumatic, and circulation was affected," said Publisher Marty Singerman. "We're just now getting to a full staff, circulation is over 400,000 and we intend to start promoting the paper this summer."

The Miami Herald's 1.7% drop was attributed to a decline in domestic and Canadian tourism to south Florida, said Lee Ann Schlatter, director of corporate communications for Knight-Ridder. Canadian tourists are cutting short winter visits because of changes in their national healthcare plan, which no longer reimburses them while in the U.S. Domestic tourists are turning away from Miami because of highly publicized attacks against tourists.

But some papers had good news.

Investor's Business Daily continued to chalk up strong circulation gains with 18.7% for the period. The San Antonio Express-News continues to benefit from the 1993 demise of a rival paper, gaining 14.5%.

The Dallas Morning News attributed its 6.4% gain to "more aggressive marketing and circulation activity" including TV and radio advertising, said President Jeremy Halbreich. A strong Southwest economy also helped the paper, he said. Gains came despite a price increase. The (Baltimore) Sun's 7.5% increase in circulation came from making the paper available earlier on weekdays and Sunday, and on an increased number of store newsracks, said Mike Shultz, research-media communications manager. The Sun is also being sold more aggressively by telephone and direct mail.

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