Circ Hits Keep Coming

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By: Jennifer Saba

Spring 2009 numbers showed newspapers getting clobbered all around. In Q1 advertising results, many companies including bellwether Gannett, along with The New York Times Co. and McClatchy, reported startling declines in ad revenue ? think 30% ? never before seen in the industry. Then the FAS-FAX circulation report for the six months ending March 31 added to the pummeling, which reached unprecedented levels.

The Audit Bureau of Circulations tallied the Monday-through-Friday average for daily circulation for the period and found that for 395 papers, it fell 7% at a total of 34,439,713 copies. Once-steady Sunday (with a total of 557 dailies) was down by 5.3% to 42,082,707 copies. Downturns in past periods were more along the lines of 4% ? once a shocker, but now almost something to aspire to.

Stripped out of that daily circ total were 84 newspapers with average circulation below 50,000 during the March 2009 period. ABC changed the rules for this circ group, which can now report a six-day average versus the mandatory Monday-through-Friday average reported by its larger brethren. “We do not believe, however, that this rule change affected the above daily circulation analysis, as it appears that circulation declines among the 84 newspapers was in line with the declines for larger newspapers,” the bureau noted.

Only one paper in the top 25 increased its daily circulation: The Wall Street Journal. Daily circ inched up 0.6% to 2,082,189 copies. “These results confirm subscribers continue to recognize the increasing value of their Journal subscription, especially as other newspapers reduce coverage and distribution during this turbulent economic downturn,” Paul Bascobert, chief marketing officer of Dow Jones’ Consumer Media Group, said in a statement.

A closer look at the Journal’s numbers, however, reveals that the paper was discounting like crazy. Circulation at more than 50% of the cover price dropped 6.2%, while circulation for more than 25% but less than 50% of the cover price soared 21.3%. (Other-paid circ was down 22.7%.) The Journal has a leg up on its peers; effective April 1, ABC’s revised regulations will permit newspapers to count anything sold for a penny per copy or more toward paid circ. That change will show up in the September 2009 FAS-FAX.

The Journal’s incremental gains could hardly beat back the shadow cast over the rest of the top 20 daily list. Let’s start with the Journal’s tabloid sibling, the New York Post: This scrappy paper once boasted of big gains in the city, but its circ wins in the past arguably had more to do with its 25-cent price tag ? which doubled in May 2008. During the latest reporting period the Post shed more than 20% of its daily circulation, on a slide of copies that cost more than 50% of the basic cover price and other-paid copies. Those categories were down 19.8% and 37.3%, respectively.

The Post’s main competitor, New York’s Daily News, didn’t fare so well either. Daily circ plummeted 14.2% during the same period. Newsday in Melville, N.Y., however, lost 3%.

The Commercial Appeal in Memphis managed to pull off a 30% increase in daily circulation ? the biggest jump of any paper with a circ of 50,000 or higher. The Appeal said that those advances were due mostly to an uptick in electronic editions used for Newspaper in Education (NIE) programs. Its individually paid circulation fell 14.2% from a year prior.

“While we have seen declines in home delivery ? some of it because of the same things happening to other papers, and some of it self-imposed ? we had a dramatic increase in schools wanting to use NIE editions,” Karl Wurzbach, the Appeal’s vice president of sales and marketing, noted. Beginning October 1, 2010, however, NIE copies will not count toward paid circulation.

Even costly attempts to boost readership and circulation did not prove to have the desired affect. The Tribune Co. sent its properties back to the drawing board for redesigns ? but all of those papers kept bleeding readers, from Los Angeles to Hartford, Conn.

The Los Angeles Times, the fourth-largest newspaper in the U.S., reported a daily circ drop of 6.5% ? below the industry average ? to 723,181. An L.A. Times spokeswoman did not have single-copy sales figures, but said the redesign was launched in late October, about a month into the reporting period.

The Orlando Sentinel, the first Trib paper out of the gate in June 2008 trying for a fresh, thinner look, skidded 9.3% daily to 206,205. While all of the big Florida papers suffered just as badly or worse, last spring for the period ending March 2008, daily circ at the Orlando Sentinel was up 0.3% to 227,593 copies. Seventy percent of that circulation was made up of people paying 50% or more of the basic cover price. In 2009, 67% of that circ category accounted for total daily circ. Single-copy sales decreased while home delivery remained strong, according to one manager who told E&P he wasn’t authorized to discuss the results.

Orlando’s sister paper, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel in Ft. Lauderdale, fell 10.4% to 195,552 copies, while The Miami Herald took a 15.8% hit in daily circ. At the St. Petersburg Times, which just won two Pulitzers, daily circ plunged 10.4% to 283,093 copies. St. Pete, however, made up ground in other areas. The paper increased its net combined audience ? readership for the past seven days in print and past 30 days online ? by 6% during the reporting period.

Daily circulation at the Houston Chronicle dropped 14%, but its net combined audience grew 6.1% on a 19.4% rise in online readership. The same held true for the Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J., where daily circ skidded 16.8% but its net combined audience grew almost 5% in the same period. Online readership soared 40%, pushing up the paper’s net combined audience.

At the Star-Ledger’s sister paper in New Orleans, daily print circulation was down 7.6% to 166,098 copies at The Times-Picayune, but net combined audience was up 11.7% on a 23% rise in online readership.

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