Will Next FAS-FAX Continue a Circulation Trail of Tears?

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By: Jennifer Saba

Every six months the newspaper industry holds its collective breath, awaiting the release of the new FAS-FAX from the Audit Bureau of Circulations (the next one is due at the end of April). When the numbers come out, industry watchers pounce and invariably focus on the latest small or large declines for the past six months, while noting that this is part of a long trend. But rarely does anyone actually compute what the numbers really show, since the steady slide began about four years ago.

So E&P did a tally, com- paring the FAS-FAX for the period ending September 2007 to the FAS-FAX for the period ending September 2003 (see charts). In the past four years, the top 20 metros by circulation in this country collectively lost more than one million copies daily, a decline of 8%. Sunday circulation is even more troubling. For the same papers, Sunday plunged 14.2%, by 1.8 million copies ? an alarming decline, since Sunday copies mint money for the industry. Or at least once did.

The Washington Post fell 13.3% for both daily and Sunday. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution? Down almost 17% in daily circ over the period, as Sunday tumbled 23%. The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J., slid more than 13% daily and about 12% on Sunday.

Only two papers in the top 20 (ranked by the September 2007 FAS-FAX) have bragging rights for increasing daily circulation, but even those gains come with an asterisk. USA Today, which raised its price, grew 2% in the four-year period, but about 60% of the paper’s circulation is “other paid,” a category that other publishers are still trying to cut.

The New York Post’s daily circ rose 2.3%, though gains were made following a price cut to 25 cents. The Post tried to raise its price for a week in 2007, but quickly retreated when sales plunged. New York’s Daily News, meanwhile, astutely dropped its price during the Post’s experiment.

Sunday was just sad. No paper could report circulation increases over the four-year period.

In the wake of the 2004 circ scandals at some of the top metros, advertisers ? and Wall Street ? pulled out their microscopes to look closely at the figures. Questions were raised about the “other paid” category, with which some papers had bulked up their circ, and publishers vowed to cut back on the amount of those copies. This contributed to the 17% daily four-year slide at the Los Angeles Times, the 28% plunge in San Francisco, and the 20% dive at The Boston Globe.

The do-not-call list kicked into action in October 2003, another reason why circulation took a hit over the four-year period.

While some metros have been stabilizing (including the Los Angeles Times, which reported a small gain in September 2007), once the numbers for spring 2008 are announced it’s likely to be more of the same. Publishers are still shucking other paid and pulling back on distribution in areas that now carry less importance. They gloss over the fact that fewer people are buying the paper. But total audience numbers, including Web readers, are now being added to the mix ? and by this September’s FAS-FAX, newspapers, at least in the top markets, should be able to report some successes for a change. Perhaps future FAS-FAXs will bring a few tears of joy, instead of just tears.

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