Tuesday, May 01, 2007

From Bad To Worse: Newspapers' Circ Declines

From Bad To Worse: Newspapers' Circ Declines
by Erik Sass, Tuesday, May 1, 2007 8:00 AM ET

AMERICA'S FLAGSHIP NEWSPAPERS ARE STILL afloat, but their crews may want to don swimsuits soon. The Audit Bureau of Circulations posted numbers Monday showing that in the six months ending March 2007, total daily circulation fell 2.1% to 44,961,066. Sunday circ fell 3.1% to 48,102,437, compared to the same period last year.

The ABC FAS-FAX numbers follow a litany of bad industry news over the last few weeks, including weak first-quarter earnings from leading newspaper companies, and a decline in the housing market, with ominous implications for newspaper classifieds.

This marks the 17th straight year of decline for both weekday and Sunday circs; this is an industry in distress. Indeed, the latest ABC FAS-FAX numbers look almost identical to previous figures, released biannually in what has become a grim drumbeat of contraction. In the September 2006 report, daily circ fell 2.8% as Sunday circ dropped 3.4%; in March 2006 they fell 2.5% and 3.1%, respectively; September 2005, 2.6% and 3.1%; and March 2005, 1.9% and 2.5%.

As in previous years, big metro dailies took some of the biggest hits, with The New York Times down 1.9%, the Los Angeles Times down 4.2% to 815,723, The Washington Post down 3.5% to 699,130, Chicago Tribune down 2.1% to 566,827, Houston Chronicle down 2% to 504,114, Dallas Morning News down 14.3% to 411,919, the San Francisco Chronicle down 2.9%, Long Island's Newsday down 6.9% to 398,231, and The Boston Globe down 3.7% to 382,503.

These figures actually contain (relatively) good news for some of the big titles, as their percentage rate of decline appears to be slowing. In the September 2006 ABC report, the New York Times' daily circ was down 3.5%, Los Angeles Times 8%, San Francisco Chronicle 5.3% and The Boston Globe 6.7%. On the other hand, losses accelerated slightly at the Chicago Tribune and The Washington Post, increasing by about half a percentage point.

In this gloomy environment, publications that hold their own are success stories: USA Today's circ is up 0.5% and The Wall Street Journal grew 0.6%. The biggest standouts were New York City's two daily tabloids, as the New York Daily News grew 1.4% to 718,174, and the New York Post jumped a remarkable 7.6% to 724,748.

In recent weeks, the nation's biggest newspaper companies have posted weak first-quarter results, citing revenue declines due to Internet competition. In the first quarter of 2007, the New York Times Company saw print ad revenue decline 3.4%, compared to the same period last year, as total profit fell 9.9% to $54.5 million. At the Tribune Company, overall operating revenues slipped 4% to $1.2 billion and operating profit was down 16% to $181 million. Gannett saw total revenues decline slightly from $1.88 billion in 2006 to $1.87 billion in 2007, as net income fell from $235.3 million in first quarter 2006 to $210.6 million in 2007, a roughly 10.5% drop.

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