Newspapers continue to decline in circulation


The nation's newspapers, including The Sun, posted another six-month period of circulation declines as the industry continues to grapple with competition from the Internet, cable television and other forms of media.

Average weekday circulation at 789 newspapers fell 2.6 percent for the six-month period that ended Sept. 30, according to a report released by the Audit Bureau of Circulations and analyzed by the Newspaper Association of America, a trade group in Northern Virginia.

Average Sunday circulation at 627 papers analyzed fell by 3.1 percent. The comparisons are with the six-month period that ended Sept. 30 in 2004.

"Newspapers do not have the monopoly on information dissemination that they had back 40 years ago," said Scott Stawski, vice president for the media and entertainment practice at Inforte Corp., a Chicago consulting firm whose clients include The Sun and its parent company, Tribune Co.

The declines come as newspapers continue to wrestle with new competition from the Internet and other sources.

The reduced numbers also reflect deliberate changes by newspaper circulation departments brought on by increased scrutiny from advertisers after a string of circulation accounting scandals at Newsday on Long Island, N.Y. and the Spanish-language Hoy, both Tribune properties, and at The Dallas Morning News and the Chicago Sun-Times. Those newspapers' numbers were not included in the latest report.

Daily circulation at The Sun fell 8.5 percent to 247,193, while Sunday circulation declined 7.8 percent to 418,670. Sun executives said the declines were largely due to a reduction in certain types of promotional programs at schools and hotels.

"These copies are less valued by the advertisers," said Louis Maranto, vice president of circulation at The Sun.

He and others said a more precise statistic is individual sales, which include subscriptions and those bought by individuals from retail outlets or hawkers. By that count, individual sales declined 4.5 percent daily and 3.2 percent Sundays.

Maranto said advertisers see this as a more valid number because, "If I pay my hard-earned money for the copy, I'm going to support the advertiser."

The newspaper said that weekday circulation has improved since spring, rising 1.4 percent since March when the last national numbers were released.

Circulation fell at most of the country's largest newspapers. The largest weekday drop among them was more than 16 percent at the San Francisco Chronicle, to 391,681.

The Washington Post reported a daily circulation drop of about 4 percent to 678,779, while Sunday decreased about the same percentage to 965,919. USA Today's daily circulation fell slightly, by 0.6 percent, to 2,296,335.

The Tribune Co. expects an overall decline of 4 percent for daily and Sunday copies, excluding Newsday. Tribune took a $90 million pretax charge against its earnings last year because of circulation scandals at Newsday and Hoy.

Among some other Tribune papers, the Orlando Sentinel's daily circulation dropped 11 percent to 219,838, while the Chicago Tribune's daily circulation fell about 2.5 percent to 586,122 daily copies. Its Sunday circulation slid 1.4 percent to 950,582.

Of the country's top 20 largest newspapers, only The New York Times and the Newark Star-Ledger in New Jersey reported gains, although they were less than 1 percent.

Some industry analysts said the continued declines portend trouble for newspapers.

"They're falling like a rock and it's going to continue," said Tom McPhail, a professor of media studies at the University of Missouri. "Only if they morph themselves into 'Google' will they survive. They have to be very innovative, but I think they've missed the boat. They're behind the curve and they're going to become dinosaurs."

Others were less bleak, predicting that newspapers will learn to adjust with changing technologies and consumer tastes.

"It's not necessarily the death of newspapers," said Andrew Degenholtz, president of ValueMags, a media consulting company in Chicago. "But it always causes everyone to re-evaluate their business. I think that newspapers are here to stay and that newspapers deliver a really valuable form of information and they will adjust with the times."

Circulation has been declining steadily for years as readers get increasing amounts of information from the Internet, cable television and, more recently, satellite radio. Do-not-call legislation that restricted telemarketing cut off a major avenue for newspaper sales.

The Newspaper Association of America maintained that while circulation had declined, readership, including those who read the paper even if they don't buy it, remains potent.

Newspapers may also be gaining new readers on their Web sites, although no studies have shown that newspapers lose print readers to their electronic versions.

"All of the things that newspapers are doing that are extending their brands into other audiences aren't necessarily included in the numbers we're seeing today," said John Kimball, the newspaper association's senior vice president.

The worst year for circulation decline in the past 20 years was in 1991 - pre-Internet - when it fell 2.6 percent for the entire year, the association said.

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