Latest Newspaper Circulation Numbers Less Bad, But Still Bad

The good news from this morning's Audit Bureau of Circulations report is that overall newspaper losses were 8.7 percent daily and 6.5 percent Sunday compared to the same six-month period a year ago, which is a slight bounce-back from the record drops reported last October.
That follows a dismal result from the last six-month reporting period, when papers were down 10.6 percent daily and 7.5 percent Sunday.
"Newspapers are finding their way to the number they are looking for, where they want to settle in," John Murray, vice president of audience development for the Newspaper Association of America, told me in a phone interview. "Many have made the decision to charge more, and the effects of those price increases are still cycling through."

Murray added that a number of papers, depending on their willingness to spend on circulation promotion, are likely to stabilize their Sunday figures by the end of the year.

Still, these improvements were modest at best. Big papers, including USA Today (down 13.6 percent) and The Washington Post (down 13.1 percent daily) are doing even worse than the industry average. The New York Times' numbers (down 8.5 percent daily and 5.2 percent Sunday) were nothing to cheer about, either.
The Wall Street Journal did add roughly 10,000 daily readers, keeping its industry-leading circulation above 2 million. Another relatively strong performer was the Poynter-owned St. Petersburg Times, which declined just 1.2 percent daily and grew 1 percent on Sunday. With a Monday through Friday average of 278,888, the St. Pete Times now has higher daily circulation than the San Francisco Chronicle, The San Diego Union-Tribune, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The Boston Globe.
These comparisons come with a few asterisks, particularly regarding papers that have changed how they report their circulation. The San Jose Mercury News now reports the Contra Costa Times and Oakland Tribune as editions of the Merc, as The Philadelphia Inquirer does with its sister Daily News. Those changes obscure the losses at all five of those papers, and they will make it difficult in the future to gauge how the smaller papers are doing.

None of those papers are included in circulation comparisons because the changes make such comparisons impossible. Likewise, the current report doesn't include the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and The Ann Arbor News, both of which have closed their print operations.

This is the next-to-last report in the current format. As I noted in an earlier post, ABC will start using new definitions of paid and "qualified" circulation in October. Those changes probably will cause total circulation figures to rise and will make precise comparisons impossible.
Further, the industry has been arguing for quite a while that paid print circulation is a dated metric for audience. The NAA reported Friday that traffic to newspaper websites rose to 74.4 million unique visitors a month, its highest level yet. And a new report from Scarborough says that the number of readers per print copy is rising (meaning that readership not declining as much as paid circulation).   
Industry executives also argue that some of the circulation losses, especially at metros, have been voluntary cutbacks in distant areas that are expensive to serve and of little interest to advertisers. Budget-conscious companies are spending less on trial subscriptions, which has trimmed yet another group of marginally interested readers.
On the other hand, the price that newspapers charge to distribute inserts, a relative strength for print editions, is pegged directly to circulation. So circulation losses translate directly into continuing losses of advertising revenues. (However, Gannett and other publishers are boosting preprint numbers by distributing free packets of Sunday inserts to non-subscribers who have opted in to the service.)
Looking ahead, news consumption on mobile devices like the iPad could be a growth area for newspapers. ABC, ever on the lookout for additional products to sell, announced last week that, in collaboration with Verve Wireless, it is developing a new set of measures of mobile traffic and newspapers on e-readers.
On balance, one can accuse the industry of changing definitions for the sake of a better-sounding story, but that is probably a bad rap. With the news industry offering a broader mix of product offerings already (and more to come), paid print circulation remains an indicator of audience but not the indicator.


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