‘Wash. Post’ Execs Note Circulation Pain

By: Todd Shields

The Washington Post is one of America’s great brands, a successful newspaper that dominates a rich metropolitan market. But its circulation is shrinking, and, according to confidential assessments by Post executives, market shifts make it hard to recoup losses.

Memos unveiled as part of a lawsuit show the newspaper losing ground with such key groups as newcomers, young readers, and even well-educated, affluent consumers. In recent years, the paper has watched circulation drop in core parts of the sprawling Washington area, where a burgeoning immigrant community includes many non-English speakers.

The Post has been losing readers since 1993, with circulation falling 8.25% weekdays, to 746,724, and 7.97% Sundays, to 1,048,122. Nationwide, from 1993 to 2001 (the latest figures available), newspaper circulation dipped 7.08% daily and 5.55% Sundays.

Post executives in the internal documents explain who is rejecting the paper, but say less about why readers are fleeing. The Post documents were filed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore in response to a lawsuit filed by small Maryland newspapers that alleged unfair competition from the newspaper’s parent Washington Post Co. and its community newspapers subsidiary, Gazette Newspapers Inc. A federal judge dismissed the papers’ suit in August. The plaintiffs have appealed.

Filings in response to the lawsuit include Post memos prepared for gatherings of top executives and editors. In 1999, those Post leaders were told that the paper was reaching fewer young adults and white-collar workers, while “worrisome” declines were taking place among more-affluent adults. Between 1992 and then, it lost nine percentage points in circ among those earning more than $75,000 annually. Other groups with greater loss of readership than average included fast-growing demographic slices such as women who work and women with small children.

“Daily-reach declines have been dramatic” in urban Maryland areas inside the Beltway, the highway that rings Washington, said the memo. It went on to note that newcomers to the region were not becoming Post readers at their former rates. “These readership trends indicate an erosion of the Post‘s core readership,” the memo said.

Although Post execs last week declined to say whether the trends persist, the ongoing dips in circulation suggest the difficulties continue. Responses by the paper have included the addition of sections on local news, expanded coverage of growing outlying areas, and extra marketing efforts for the Sunday paper.

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