Dailies See Circulation Gains

By: Lucia Moses

Updated at 2:25 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, April 30

In a welcome sign for the advertising-lite newspaper business, several large chains and a number of individual papers report they will show circulation bumps in the next Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC) FAS-FAX, scheduled for release May 5. Papers of all sizes shared the gains.

In few cases did publishers cite big news events, such as the Columbia explosion or the Iraq war at the end of the reporting period, as circulation drivers. Instead, they credited a mix of retention programs, readership initiatives, and the ABC third-party rule change allowing businesses to buy newspaper copies at a discount and then resell them to readers.

Overall, circulation at Belo’s three large dailies grew 1.02% daily and 1.74% Sunday in the six months ended March 31. Its flagship, The Dallas Morning News, rose 0.8% daily and 1.3% Sunday.

Lee Enterprises Inc. charted chainwide gains of about 0.5% daily and 0.3% Sunday for the same period. This will be Lee’s fourth consecutive increase in the FAS-FAX.

MediaNews Group Inc. and Media General Inc. reported better-than-usual gains at nearly all their papers, but companywide figures weren’t available.

The Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch advanced 3.36% daily, 0.37% Sunday. The Houston Chronicle edged up 0.5% daily, 0.12% Sunday. Newsday in Melville, N.Y., inched up 0.26% daily, 0.15% Sunday. The Wall Street Journal was essentially flat. A variety of factors cost the San Francisco Chronicle 2.2% daily, but a weekend offer boosted Saturday and Sunday by 2.1% and 3.1%, respectively.

MediaNews Group focused on retention while de-emphasizing Newspaper In Education and third-party sales. Said President Jody Lodovic: “The growth needs to be in quality circulation, not just throwing numbers on the board. In a lot of our markets, churn has been a big problem.”

Lee’s Wisconsin State Journal in Madison grew circ 2.8% daily, 0.5% Sunday, due to bonus days, sponsorships, single-copy promotions, and improved news content, Circulation Director Phil Stoddard said.

Media General’s top performer was The Tampa (Fla.) Tribune, rising nearly 6% daily and 5% Sunday, while its rival St. Petersburg Times gained 0.6% daily, 0.5% Sunday. The Tribune credited more discounting, marketing, and local coverage. Tampa represents another trend: Papers’ growing use of the Readership Institute’s “Impact” study of readership to build circulation by improving local coverage, among other changes.

At the Wisconsin State Journal, “We’re making a real effort to have stories that touch ordinary people’s lives,” Editor Frank Denton said. A resurvey of the 100 original “Impact” study papers and anecdotal evidence suggest that, two years after the study, most papers are employing its recommendations in some fashion, said Mary Nesbitt, managing director of the Readership Institute at Northwestern University’s Media Management Center.

In a field where success is measured in small percentage moves, other newspapers continue to fight to stay in positive territory. Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. CEO Mike Reed said its overall daily circulation is down 1.5%, which is a bit less than the declines in recent years. “It’s a step in the right direction,” he said.

Cox Newspapers Inc., the parent of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, managed to hold its circulation steady overall, spokeswoman Colleen Brannan said, with home delivery, retention programs, and third-party sales helping to offset single-copy dips.

Correction: The first version of this story incorrectly referred to the space shuttle Challenger.

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