Exclusive: Charting 4-Year Circ Plunge at Major Papers

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By: Jennifer Saba

In just four years the top newspapers in the U.S. have collectively lost about 1.4 million copies in daily circulation, E&P has found. But since the reported numbers come out every six months, the overall decline for individual papers may not hit home for many. Each fall off is usually in the low- to mid-single digits — but it sure adds up.

While the industry has lost about 10% of circulation overall in the past four years among the leading papers, some have bled much more than others during the same period, according to an E&P analysis of data from the Audit Bureau of Circulations.

The Los Angles Times lost 20% of daily circulation or more than 200,000 copies over the past four years, for example, while up the coast the San Francisco Chronicle’s daily circulation dropped almost 30%.

The Boston Globe plunged about 20% and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution almost 17%. The Washington Post took an 13% hit. The New York Times is down a more palatable 7.2%.

Most of the top 20 newspapers, as ranked by the six-month period ending September 2007, experienced losses in the high single digits or more looking at the previous four years.

There are some gainers though: USA Today increased its circulation 2% and the New York Post grew 2.3% (but lost circ in its most recent report).

The list compares data from ABC FAS-FAX reports from the six-month period ending September 2003 and the same period for September 2007.

In that September 2003 report, overall daily circulation for the papers reporting to ABC fell about 0.4%, more or less the average decline (then). It wasn’t until the summer of 2004 when Newsday, The Dallas Morning News, the Chicago Sun-Times and others admitted to misstating circulation by thousands of copies, that overall circulation started dropping at least 2%.

The scandals caused advertisers and industry watchers to put circulation under a microscope. Publishers began cutting out what is considered “lesser quality” circulation. That type of circulation falls under the category “other paid.”

Many newspapers including the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Boston Globe began cutting other paid circulation — employee, hotel, newspapers in educations and especially third party sponsored copies — hence some of the steep decreases.

The do-not-call list, which went into effect in October 2003, is another reason circulation dropped during the period.

While many papers have experienced significant declines in circulation, they are gaining readers with online newspapers.

**

PAPER — Daily (M-F) Sept. ’07 – Copies, Gained/Lost Since Sept. 03– % Change

USA Today — 2,293,137 — 46,141 — 2.1%
The Wall Street Journal — 2,011,882 — (-79,180) — (-3.8%)
The New York Times — 1,037,828 — (-80,737) — (-7.2%)
Los Angeles Times* — 794,705 — (-201,133) — (-20.2%)
New York Daily News — 681,415 — (-47,709) — (-6.5%)

New York Post — 667,119 — 14,693 — 2.3%
The Washington Post — 635,087 — (-97,785) — (-13.3%)
Chicago Tribune — 559,404 — (-54,105) — (-8.8%)
Houston Chronicle* — 502,631 — (-50,387) — (-9.1%)
Newsday — 387,503 — NA

The Arizona Republic*, Phoenix — 385,214 — (-47,070) — (-10.9%)
The Dallas Morning News — 373,586 — NA
San Francisco Chronicle — 365,234 — (-147,406) — (-28.8%)
The Boston Globe — 360,695 — (-89,843) — (-19.9%)
The Star-Ledger, Newark, N.J. — 353,003 — (-55,669) — (-13.6%)

The Philadelphia Inquirer — 338,049 — (-38,444) — (-10.2%)
Star Tribune*, Minneapolis — 341,645 — (-38,709) — (-10.2%)
The Plain Dealer*, Cleveland — 332,894 — (-32,394) — (-8.9%)
Detroit Free Press — 320,125 — (-32,589) — (-9.2%)
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution — 318,350 — (-64,071) — (-16.8%)

* Daily average is Monday-Saturday.

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