By ANICK JESDANUN
(AP) — The nation's daily newspapers, already finding advertising revenue fell sharply because of the weak economy, saw circulation decline more steeply than anticipated in the latest reporting period, an auditing agency said Monday. Average weekday circulation was 38,165,848 in the six-months ending in September, a 4.6 percent decline from 40,022,356 a year earlier at the 507 papers that reported circulation totals in both periods. The drop was only 2.6 percent in the September 2007 period, compared with September 2006. In the six-month period that ended in March 2008, the decline was 3.6 percent over a year earlier, according to circulation figures that newspapers submitted to the Audit Bureau of Circulations. Sunday circulation fell even more, 4.8 percent, to 43,631,646 in the latest period at the 571 papers with comparable totals. The drop was 3.5 percent a year ago and 4.6 percent in the period ending in March. Circulation and advertising have been dropping at newspapers as readers continue to migrate to the Internet. Ad revenue began to decline more steeply this summer as the weak economy prompted advertisers to pull back on spending. The sharper circulation declines appear to be a response to that, said Rick Edmonds, media analyst at the journalism think tank Poynter Institute.
"Times are tough, and they are looking at everything that's in their expense base," he said. "Building new subscribers is an expensive proposition." Some newspapers have purposely let some sales slide to focus on those readers who are coveted by advertisers and exclude those in outlying areas that are more expensive to reach. Circulation could drop even faster as regular readers, in a tight economy, decide they no longer need their printed newspapers, Edmonds warned. Many papers have offset circulation declines with price increases, though papers risk losing readers if they raise prices too much. In a sign of hope, the Newspaper Association of America said last week that usage of newspaper Web sites grew nearly 16 percent in the third quarter, compared with last year, to an average of more than 68 million monthly unique visitors. But online ad sales haven't increased fast enough to offset the declines in print, which still makes up the bulk of a paper's revenue. USA Today remains the nation's top-selling newspaper, with average daily circulation of 2,293,310, just 173 more than last year. The No. 2 daily, The Wall Street Journal, also reported flat circulation — up just 117 copies to 2,011,999.
The New York Times saw circulation decline 3.6 percent to 1,000,665, while the Los Angeles Times had a 5.2 percent drop to 739,147. The other papers in the top 25 also saw circulation drops of from 1.9 percent at The Washington Post to 13.6 percent at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The New York Times remains the top paper on Sundays, when USA Today and the Journal do not publish, with a circulation of 1,438,585, down 4.1 percent. The Los Angeles Times follows at 1,055,076, down 5.1 percent, and the Post at 866,057, a decrease of 3.2 percent. Among the top 25, only the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times reported Sunday gains, of 0.8 percent and 0.1 percent, respectively. Despite the industrywide decline in circulation, five papers outside the top 25 reported gains of at least 5 percent, led by the Wisconsin State Journal of Madison, where circulation rose 10.6 percent to 97,012. The other gainers are The Macomb Daily of Mount Clemens, Mich., The Daily Sun of The Villages, Fla., The Times of Trenton, N.J., and the Citizen Tribune of Morristown, Tenn.