Sneak Peek At First FAX-FAX Circ Numbers for Several Papers

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By: Jennifer Saba

Just like downtrodden Charlie Brown on Halloween, it looks like many newspapers are going to get a bag of rocks when the Audit Bureau of Circulations releases the fall 2006 circulation numbers on Oct. 30.

Earlier this week, E&P reported that overall circulation data for the upcoming FAS-FAX are trending much like past reporting periods, with industry sources expecting daily down 2.5% and Sunday down 3%, and some major metros are reporting record losses. Now we have the actual numbers for several papers.

When E&P contacted one circulation director about the rumor of possible gains at his paper he quipped: “Is it April Fools?”

One public company issued advanced data. In a press release for 3Q results, Belo reported The Dallas Morning News showed steep declines for the six-month period ending September 2006. Daily circulation dropped 13% while Sunday slipped 12%. The company attributes the losses to a cut in statewide circulation and in third-party advertiser sponsored copies.

Daily circulation at The Providence (R.I.) Journal is down 2.5% and Sunday decreased 8%. The sharp decline in Sunday circulation is due to the company weeding out third-party circulation.

The Press-Enterprise in Riverside, Calif., lost 4% of its daily circulation. Sunday is down slightly.

At The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., daily circulation is virtually flat with a loss of 288 copies. Sunday was also down a little, under 1%.

The Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader dropped slightly as well. Daily and Sunday circulation are both down 2%. The paper cut back on its third party and Newspaper In Education (NIE) copies.

There were some gainers in the bunch. The Indianapolis Star grew its daily circulation 1.3% by converting metro Sunday-only subscribers to a Thursday/Sunday frequency. Sunday eked out gains with 89 copies, up a fraction of a percent.

As reported at E&P earlier, the St. Paul (Minn.) Pioneer Press also made advances with daily up 0.2% and Sunday up 0.2%.

There are some other clues as to what circulation is going to look like at papers around the country. It does not bode well when executives at public companies, who generally answer analysts on earnings calls when asked about upcoming ABC reports, clam up.

During The New York Times Co. earnings call yesterday, CEO Janet Robinson declined to discuss the results of the upcoming FAS-FAX for the New York Times and The Boston Globe when asked by Lehman Brothers analyst Craig Huber: “In regard to the ABC, the [FAS-FAX is] going to be out the very end of this month. And when indeed they are announced, we will be in a better position to really outline what the numbers are and also, indeed, the steps we have taken in regard to circulation generation and focus in regard to quality circulation as well.”

However, judging by 3Q circulation revenue, it’s likely the Boston Globe will report drops. While overall circulation revenue for the company during the quarter was down 1.3% the New England Media Group recorded losses in circulation revenue of 5.7%.

Tribune Co. executives were just as tight-lipped about the fall data. Circulation revenue for the company slipped 6% in 3Q but executives said they are stabilizing individually paid, which is down less than 1% daily and 2.5% on Sunday.

“I would say it is noteworthy that home delivery circulation across the group is actually up daily, down only slightly Sunday,” said Scott Smith, Tribune Publishing president on an earnings call yesterday. “So the declines we are experiencing are essentially single copy. The revenue decline is a combination of lower single copy volume and then somewhat lower average rates on home delivery.

“And our view there is that it is better to extend discounts on home delivery and retain the most valuable subscribers rather than take them to higher prices after initial discounts and incur even more cost to remarket to new subscribers. So it is a blend of those phenomena.”

McClatchy, which until very recently, could brag of 20 years of consecutive growth in circulation, is working hard to bring in line circ at the newly acquired Knight Ridder papers. That was one of the major differences executives pointed to when asked to compare former Knight Ridder papers to McClatchy papers.

“We found that Knight Ridder papers typically had a higher percentage of their circulation in that other category, third party programs,” said Frank Whittaker, vice president of operations at McClatchy during a 3Q conference call. “So we are working with the publishers to sort of bring that down in a planned fashion so that we are delivering higher value to our advertisers.”

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