Executives Explain Circulation Losses

By: Joe Strupp

While most big dailies reported gains to the Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC) for the six-month period ended March 31, a handful of large papers saw significant drops that left their publishers scrambling to explain.

At the same time, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin became so fed up with what it calls harassment by ABC that it declined to submit a publisher’s statement and severed all ties with the organization. The paper announced it had contracted with KPMG to conduct future circulation audits.

The Star-Bulletin‘s change comes after months of disputes with The Honolulu Advertiser and its owner, Gannett Co. Inc. Star-Bulletin executives contend that Gannett has influenced ABC’s decision to delay issuing Star-Bulletin audit information and conduct investigations into the paper’s promotional programs. ABC spokeswoman Laura Hagensick declined to comment.

The latest ABC FAS-FAX report, revised as of May 3 to fix errors that appeared in the initial release, showed that USA Today remained the highest-circulation daily, despite a 3.4% decline from the previous year. USA Today spokesman Steve Anderson blamed the loss on a reduction in bulk sales due to the nationwide drop in travel following Sept. 11.

The Los Angeles Times saw its daily circ shrink by 5.3%. Spokeswoman Martha Goldstein linked some of the decline to a single-copy price increase — to 50 cents from 25 cents — that took effect in February 2001. She also said the paper cut much of its subscription discounting in the last six months, and noted that its Sunday circulation grew slightly, by 0.2%.

A little to the south, The Orange County Register in Santa Ana lost 10.9% of its weekday circulation and 9.6% on Sunday. Ron Redfern, senior vice president of sales, said half the loss came from a distribution cutback in fringe areas, which affected about 15,000 copies each day. “We’ve also refocused our promotional approach away from newspaper event sponsorship and telemarketing,” he added.

At The Philadelphia Inquirer, which lost 3.0% in weekday circulation and 0.3% on Sunday, Publisher Robert J. Hall said the drop was due to cutbacks in promotion, telemarketing, and other marketing efforts in the fourth quarter of last year due to cost-cutting. He said the paper had actually seen gains in the first quarter of this year.

Sunday sales at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch fell 2.4%, and Stephen Helm, vice president and circulation director, attributed some of the decline to a cutback in discount programs, including a popular promotion that allowed weekend subscribers to receive a free extra day of home delivery.

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