NAA: Circ For Overall Industry Shows Steep Drop

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By: Jennifer Saba

The Audit Bureau of Circulations’ March 2005 Fas-Fax report won’t be released until mid-afternoon, but the Newspaper Association of America did a preview analysis of the numbers and found to be true what has largely been anticipated: Daily and Sunday circulation took greater hits this period than in periods past.

For the six months ending March 2005, daily circulation fell 1.9% to 47,374,033 for the 814 papers reporting to the Audit Bureau. Sunday’s drop was even steeper, with a decline of 2.5% to 51,073,104 for the 643 papers that reported.

The study does not include three newspapers — Newsday, The Dallas Morning News ,and the Chicago Sun-Times — that have been censured by the bureau because of prior circulation inflation. The declines would have been larger had the three been included, as they are three of the largest papers in the country.

Twenty-nine percent, or 239 daily newspapers, reported gains, mostly coming from small and mid-sized markets. Only three papers with circulations over 500,000 reported increases. Twenty-five percent of papers with circulation between 250,000 and 500,000 noted circ gains. For the 100,000-to-250,000 category, 25% showed growth, as did a quarter of the 50,000-to-100,000 category. Of those papers with circulation between 25,000 to 50,000, 30% showed growth. And finally papers with circulations of 25,000 or less faired the best, with 31.1% showing an increase.

This spring, several factors continuted to the larger-than-usual drop. Last November, the NAA reported that daily circ declined 0.9% and Sunday decreased 1.5% for the six-month period ending September 2005.

“Changes in strategy among some publishers to focus on certain categories of higher-readership paid circulation rather than total new paid circulation impact the industry totals,” said John Sturm, NAA president and CEO, in a statement. “In addition, a variety of new changes in reporting methodology came into effect at ABC, and this reporting period also reflects the first full cycle of regulatory changes such as the new telemarketing rules.”

The do-not-call list is still cited as one of the culprits dragging down the numbers. The legislation creating the reigstry went into effect in October 2003, but more and more people have been adding their names to the list over the past two years. The NAA is set to release a new report that shows as of two years ago only 10% of “available numbers” were on the do-not-call list. Now, it’s up to 40%.

“That’s dramatic,” said John Murray, vice president of circulation marketing for the NAA. Other pieces of regulation — newspapers have to identify themselves on caller ID screens — went into action in January 2005.

Many newspapers executives have also shifted circulation strategy over the past year, choosing to focus more on readership and the kind of circ that advertisers deem valuable. Some may have walked away from circulation that doesn’t make sense from a geographical standpoint or circ programs with high costs, Murray explained.

And the ABC rule that limits the amount of “days omitted” has phased in, impacting the numbers, especially in larger metro markets. Newspapers could once delete up to 40 days from their report due to bad weather or holidays. Now they can only take 10. ABC barter rules that take into account third-party sponsored copies have changed making it more complex and cumbersome to report, Murray said, which also plays in to some of the reported declines.

For the most part, industry watchers don’t expect circulation to stabilize until a year from now; however, more newspapers are moving towards a readership metric that takes into account other products.

“Many publishers are successfully offering more than a core print product in their market,” said Sturm in a statement. “The only way to truly capture the growth and success of investments in free local dailies, ethnic products and online properties, is to track newspaper readership.”

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