Circulation Ebbs at Nation's Newspapers

Article excerpt

Hot news leaves total circulation cold, despite some big gainers

Not even the combined efforts of Kenneth Staff, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire could keep overall newspaper circulation from falling back after a promising uptick in the spring.

Despite baseball's home run chase, the much-ballyhooed publication of the Starr report on the White House sex scandal and other high-interest news, circulation flattened out over the six months ended Sept. 30, the latest Fas-Fax report from the Audit Bureau of Circulations shows.

Overall, daily circulation was down 0.3% for the 816 general-interest newspapers reporting in this Fas-Fax, according to an analysis by the Newspaper Association of America. The news is particularly disappointing because it follows a reporting period when an overall increase of not quite 1% was hailed as a sign that newspaper sales might be turning around.

"I don't think the recent results signify a sea-change," NAA president and CEO John F. Sturm said. "But we were hoping after last spring that we'd be seeing more of a trend upward."

Circulation on Sundays -- the one day when the growing numbers of casual readers once could be counted on to buy a paper -- showed yet another decline in what has become a decade-long slump. NAA's analysis showed Sunday circulation overall was off 0.8%.

At the same time, the report was good news for bigger papers. And the bigger the paper, the more likely it was to gain: In the 100,000-250,000 circulation range, NAA found, 51% reported gains; between 250,000 and 500,000, 62% of papers increased circulation, and among papers over 500,000, fully 67% recorded a sales increase.

Among the top 25 daily papers, 16 reported circulation increases -- the first time in this decade that these big-city circulations have increased for two consecutive reporting periods.

The biggest single winner was No. 25: the Denver Rocky Mountain News added an average 29,024 copies - a 9.6% gain -- for daily circulation of 331,978. The surge put it within 10,000 copies of the rival Denver Post, which added 4,138 copies, or 1.2%, for daily circulation of 341,544. Both Denver papers posted Sunday increases. The Rocky gained 17,453, or 4.2%, to 432,931, while the Post gained 13,477, or 2.9%, to 484,657.

`FRONT RANGE' STRATEGY

News publisher Larry Strutton characterized the improvement as a dramatic payoff for its radical "Front Range" strategy. In 1996, the E.W. Scripps Co-owned tabloid essentially abandoned its statewide circulation to build its numbers - and attractiveness to advertisers in the Denver metro area and the growth corridors along Interstates 25 and 70. "It's gratifying to see that the strategy of focusing on the Front Range is paying off and that, as promised, we're not only gaining circulation, but we're doing it in the area that most benefits advertisers," Strutton said.

Also making good on a promise to increase circulation was the Los Angeles Times, which increased daily sales an average 17,363 copies, or 1.7%, to 1,067,540.

USA Today reported its circulation Mondays through Thursdays was up an average 23,763 copies, to 1,653,428. If the Friday edition, which stays in news boxes for three days, were considered a Sunday paper, it would dwarf the current leader, the New York Times. The Friday USA Today sells 2,083,213 copies up 33,503, or 1.6%, over the year compared to 1,627,099 copies of the Sunday Times, which declined 31,619, or 1.9% in the same period.

USA Today also remains the champ of bulk sales, which were reported in Fas-Fax for the first time. During the week, it reported an average 467,871 copies in so-called third-party sales. Over the weekend, the number is 505,233. The New York Times reported an average 15,213 bulk copies during the week.

Among the biggest percentage gainers was the Minneapolis based Star Tribune, which was up 3.3% by adding 12,950 copies for a total of 400,362. …