Poor Circulation: While Feeling Flush, Most Newpapers Watch Their Numbers Drop

Article excerpt

In these boom times, newspaper circulation is on a roll - mostly downhill.

The latest Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC) FAS-FAX report, covering the six months ended Sept. 30, 1999, shows that, as an industry, newspapers have yet to turn around the long-term circulation slide. An analysis of the FAS-FAX results by the Newspaper Association of America (NAA) showed that overall daily and Sunday newspaper circulation both declined by 0.7 percent from the same period a year ago.

Even among the biggest daily newspapers - the only category where there was an actual, if slight, increase - this latest FAS-FAX showed circulation declines among Northeastern and Midwestern papers that suggested a recession-era Rust Belt was returning.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch lost 7.9 percent of its weekday circulation in the last 12 months. The Philadelphia Inquirer was down 6.9 percent. The New York Daily News declined 2.9 percent The Chicago Tribune lost 3.9 percent when its circulation is calculated on a Monday-Friday basis. Across Michigan Avenue, the Chicago Sun-Times was down 3.6 percent during the week.

"This report is just not good," Sun-Times Director of Distribution Mark Hornung says. In Chicago, Hornung says, the tabloid Sun-Times was hit particularly hard by a falloff in single-copy sales.

"Our basic story is [that] we've painfully learned the effect Michael Jordan and the Bulls had on street sales," Hornung says, referring to the now-retired basketball star and the now-ordinary team whose string of championship runs once guaranteed big spikes in single-copy sales during the winter and springtime.

Much the same phenomenon was undoubtedly at work in St. Louis, where the Post-Dispatch enjoyed huge gains in single-copy sales in the summer of 1998 as St. Louis Cardinals slugger Mark McGwire was attempting to break the baseball home run record. Over the year, the Post-Dispatch declined 26,268 copies to 303,314 during the week and 15,840 copies to 500,397 on Sundays. Post-Dispatch Vice President and Circulation Director Larry Martin did not return a phone call for comment on the FAS-FAX figures before press time.

News - and "aggressive" pricing taken to new extremes - made the difference in Denver, where both newspapers scored dramatic circulation gains in the past year.

"We have aggressively pursued all the stories in a way our competition has not and it's been a great year for news, with the Broncos, JonBenet, and, very sadly, Colombine," says Linda Sease, vice president for marketing for the Denver Rocky Mountain News.

Scripps-Howard's News added an average 64,136 copies, or 16.1 percent, to grow to 396,114 and take back the weekday circulation lead from its rival, The Denver Post. MediaNews Group Inc.'s Post soared, too, growing 35,700 copies, or 9.5 percent, to 376,549. On Sundays, the Post, with 520,049 copies, up 35,392, or 6.8 percent, over the year, stayed ahead of the News, which increased 71,556, or 14.2 percent, to 504,487.

At the Post, Publisher Gerald E. Grilly has his own explanation for the News' growth.

"They're giving the paper away. They've turned it into a shopper," he says. "It's a desperate and costly strategy. We made the decision not to devalue the paper."

"We do have 'a-penny-a-day' [rate] and you know what - so do they," Sease says, referring to one of the paper's many subscription offers. "So what does it tell you that we're up 64,000 and they're up 35,000?"

Sease portrays the latest FAS-FAX as a vindication for the Rocky's nearly 4-year-old "Front Range Plus" strategy in which the tabloid concentrated its circulation and marketing efforts on Denver and its six-county region.

"Everybody raised their eyebrows and said, 'What are they thinking?' Well, we said we would not waste our advertisers' money in the hinterland and places two or three states away," Sease says. She says 69 percent of this period's daily circulation growth, and 60 percent of the Sunday growth, occurred in the six-county area. …