Metros Make Circulation Gains

By: Mark Fitzgerald

In the latest Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC) reporting period concluded in September, the most important influence on newspaper circulation was: (A) The single-copy sales spike after the events of Sept. 11. (B) New ABC rules that now permit bulk sales and steeply discounted subscriptions to be counted as top-line paid circulation. (C) None of the above.

Go to the head of the class if you picked (C).

For all the talk that this reporting period would usher in a new age — first because of the new rules, and later because of the terrorist attacks on America — the fact is that for the vast majority of papers reporting in this ABC FAS-FAX, single-copy and subscription pricing held the greatest sway over which direction circulation numbers went. As Cyndi Lauper sang back in the 1980s, money changes everything.

As it turns out, only a few papers took aggressive advantage of the new reporting rules.

By far the biggest daily-circulation winner in this FAS-FAX, which compiled publisher reports of their average circulations over the six-month period ended Sept. 30, was the New York Post, which last year cut its daily cover price to 25 cents from 50 cents. Sales of the tabloid jumped 22.2%, to 533,860.

By far the biggest daily-circulation losers — on purpose — were the Denver dailies, with pricing again a key factor. In January, they formally ended their long and brutal newspaper war, which included annual subscription prices cheaper than a barbershop haircut. They pushed their pricing up to industry norms, and, as a result, the Rocky Mountain News‘ average of 309,938 copies is 24.5% lower than it reported last year and The Denver Post‘s average, 305,929, is down 25%. Last year at this time, the Rocky and the Post were, respectively, the 16th and 17th biggest papers in America. Now, they are 27th and 29th.

Somewhere in the middle among big metro circulation losers was the Milwaukee Journal
, which declined 8.5%, to 255,098. The big reason for the drop: The Journal Sentinel stopped offering 50% discounts to new subscribers. “It was a high-churn group of subscribers,” said spokesman Bob Dye. “We thought [ending the discount] was a good business decision that would help us on the revenue side, and that it wasn’t worth it for the high churn we were getting.” The angle of the drop, though, was steeper than the paper had expected, Dye said.

The Los Angeles Times also took a hit because it chose to raise its weekday single-copy price to 50 cents from 25 cents. Measured on the Monday-to-Friday basis it has used in recent years, the L.A. Times declined 6.4%, to 967,226, in this period.

From now on, however, the L.A. Times, like many other big papers, is choosing to emphasize its late-week issues, and no wonder: In this FAS-FAX, it reported its Thursday-to-Saturday circulation average as 1,000,610.

The exception to the pricing rule was the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times, which increased its weekday single-copy price to 35 cents from a quarter in its core circulation area — yet managed a 1.7% increase in total paid circulation. “Research showed our single-copy buyers took great value in the newspaper, and even at the higher price, it’s still only 35 cents,” President and Editor Paul Tash said.

After decades of sometimes intense debate, ABC with this FAS-FAX implemented rules permitting papers to include bulk-sales copies sold for free distribution by hotels, airlines, universities, and others, as well as individual newspapers sold for as little as 25% of the “base price” of a copy or subscription.

But few papers have done much with this so far, and none were guaranteed a circulation bump. ABC, for comparison purposes, adjusted upward the papers’ numbers from six months ago, as if the new accounting rules were in place then.

Some of the papers, therefore, ended up showing year-to-year declines because of the fall-off in business travel and hotel stays that started in the spring and accelerated after Sept. 11, cutting into their bulk sales. USA Today — now the nation’s largest paper by a margin of nearly 370,000 copies over the second-place Wall Street Journal — declined 0.2%, largely because of its dependence on these bulk sales. In this FAS-FAX, “other” paid circulation for the paper was 985,731 Monday-to-Thursday, or 45.8% of total paid circulation.

The single-copy spike coming after Sept. 11, accounting for just 18 days of the six-month period, was even less of a factor, circulation executives said. Weekday circulation at the Chicago Sun-Times was up 1.9% over last year, and Vice President for Circulation Mark Hornung said stronger single-copy sales was one reason why. But post-Sept. 11 sales made up only a third of the single-copy increases during the period, Hornung said.

The bigger difference? Once again, it was pricing. Said Hornung: “Our largest competitor was marketing very aggressively, and we chose to chase them. We are comfortable marketing at 25% [of the base price].” Steeply discounted individual and bulk sales accounted for only about 4.5% of total Sun-Times circulation.

The tabloid’s market-leading rival, the Chicago Tribune, reported no discounted individual-paid copies and about 23,000 copies, or 3.5% of total circulation, in the “other” category. The Tribune‘s daily circulation was up 1.9% for its emphasized Wednesday-to-Friday period, and up 0.2% for Sundays. “We really tried to focus on our core marketing strategies,” said Vince Casanova, vice president of circulation and consumer marketing. “Home delivery was very strong, and retention seems to be improving.”

The Newspaper Association of America (NAA) reported daily newspaper readership as measured by its Competitive Media Index had increased since its last comparable report in the spring. The NAA said 54.3% of all adults reported reading a newspaper “yesterday,” up from 53.5% in the spring report.

A doleful pattern emerges from the numbers, however. The current 54.3% readership figure represents a decline from 55.1% in the report released last fall, which itself was a decrease from 56.2% readership in the fall of 1999.

The Inland Press Association has documented a similar circulation decline in a four-year analysis it just completed of figures from the “Cost and Revenue Study” it administers for the industry. Of the 168 dailies participating every year between 1997 and 2000, Inland Executive Director Ray Carlsen said, only 25 showed circulation increases over four years, nine remained flat, and all others showed decreases.

“The generalization that sticks out is that circulation is going down,” Carlsen said.

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