Figures are for six months ended Sept. 30, 1994, compared withthe same six-month period last year, except where noted. Rank is based on Monday-Friday circulation, except where noted. When papers reported separate Monday-Thursday circulation and Friday circulations, the figures are weighted averages of the two. In some cases, Sunday papers have different names. (chart) NEWSPAPERS SEE DECLINE CONTINUE SIX-MONTH NUMBERS WEAK

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An improved economy has not halted circulation erosion among the nation's largest daily papers. Among the few bright stars: The Atlanta Constitution (+3.3%); Investor's Business Daily (+7.4%); and the Sunday edition of the New York Daily News (+3.9%).

Of the top 100 daily papers, the overwhelming majority (61%) reported daily circulation declines, according to figures from the Au- dit Bureau of Circulation for the six-month period ended Sept. 30.

John Morton, media analyst with Lynch Jones & Ryan, Washington, calls the latest figures "a continuation of the long-term trend of circulation declines."

One of the biggest losers among the top 100 was Newsday, where circulation dropped 7.8% to 693,556-in part due to a price increase for its daily New York paper.

"Newsday sat like a vulture in a tree waiting for everyone else to die," said Fred Drasner, CEO and co-publisher of the rival New York Daily News. "Now that it hasn't happened, they're trying to figure out what to do."

Counters Steven Isenberg, who in a shakeup earlier this month (AA, Nov. 7) was promoted to publisher at New York Newsday, "Our competitors may falsely believe that there has been some lessening of corporate willpower and that's wrong. Our resolve [to continue with New York News] is strong."

However, Mr. Isenberg does concede the company is cutting distribution in the Bronx and areas north of New York City to push "hardest in Queens, Brooklyn and Manhattan."

Mr. Drasner insists the Daily News is posting revenues "in excess of $250 million a year" and is profitable even though the Monday-to-Friday edition also saw some circulation slippage, dropping 1.1% to 753,024.

"We had a comfortable level of operating income last year," said Mr. Drasner. "We'll duplicate that this year." Circulation for the News' Sunday paper is up 3.9%, the largest Sunday gain among the top 100 papers.

Although the red hot Atlanta economy helped the Atlanta Constitution to a healthy 3.3% circulation gain, Publisher Dennis Berry isn't resting on his laurels. The paper's marketing and promotion budget was just boosted 33% to $3 million. And he has put in place an innovative circulation-building ploy: A special three-day home delivery package on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

"We're trying to get our Sunday-only reader, which is basically female, to read the paper at least one extra day," he said.

Another bright spot: Investor's Business Daily. Though the 10-year-old financial daily has yet to earn a dime in profit, every circulation period it seems to climb closer to the 250,000 circulation level that founder and Chairman William O'Neill says it needs to be profitable.

Joe Mandese coordinates MediaWorks.

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