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Newspaper circulation declines 7% in last six months

David B. Wilkerson
MarketWatch (MCT)

The average daily circulation of U.S. newspapers declined 7 percent in the six-month period ending March 31, according to the latest data from the Audit Bureau of Circulations, reflecting an increased rate of decline over the last two measured periods.

The data indicate that in the midst of a shift in consumer behavior that has led more people to get their news and information online, a depressed economy has induced still more readers to cancel their newspaper subscriptions.

Among 395 daily U.S. newspapers, the average circulation totaled 34.4 million, compared with a total of 37.1 million in the March 2008 reporting period, according to preliminary figures, the ABC said.

In the six months ended Sept. 30, daily circulation was down 4.6 percent from the same period a year earlier. In the March 2008 period, daily circulation fell 3.6 percent.

With 557 U.S. newspapers reporting their Sunday numbers, average circulation fell 5.4 percent in the March 2009 period, to 42.1 million.

USA Today, owned by Gannett Co., maintained its long-held title as the No. 1 daily newspaper in America, with a total paid circulation of 2.11 million, though that figure represents a decline of 7.5 percent from the same six-month period a year earlier.

The Wall Street Journal, acquired in 2007 by News Corp., was second in daily circulation at 2.08 million, presenting a 0.6 percent improvement over the year-earlier period. News Corp. also owns MarketWatch, the publisher of this report.

The New York Times was third at 1.04 million, down 3.6 percent; Tribune Co.'s Los Angeles Times came in fourth at 723,181, a decline of 6.6 percent; and the Washington Post was the fifth-largest daily at 665,383.

Also in the top 10 were the New York Daily News, the New York Post, the Chicago Tribune, the Houston Chronicle and the Arizona Republic.

The most spectacular year-over-year declines in daily circulation were seen at the New York Post, down 21 percent; the Atlanta Journal Constitution, down 20 percent; the Newark Star-Ledger, off 17 percent; the San Francisco Chronicle, down nearly 16 percent; and the Boston Globe, where circulation dropped 14 percent.

Hearst Corp. has threatened to shut down the San Francisco Chronicle unless it can make drastic cost cuts, and Boston Globe parent New York Times Co. has reportedly warned that paper's unions that it could close unless major concessions are made.

On Sundays, the New York Times held on to its top spot, with paid circulation of 1.45 million, representing a 1.7 percent decline from its Sunday total a year earlier. The Los Angeles Times was second at 1.02 million, a drop-off of 7.5 percent; The Washington Post took third with almost 869,000 paid subscriptions, down 2.4 percent; the Chicago Tribune was fourth at just over 858,000, down 4.2 percent; and the New York Daily News was fifth, with just under 645,000, an 8.4 percent decline from the March period in 2008.

The last six months have been nightmarish for the newspaper industry.

In March, Hearst Corp. opted to shut down print operations of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, turning it into a Web-only publication with a small editorial staff.

Also in February, E.W. Scripps & Co. shut down Denver's Rocky Mountain News, while Philadelphia Newspapers LLC and Journal Register Co. filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

Last December, Tribune Co., publisher of the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, The Baltimore Sun and other major dailies, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. The parent of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune followed suit a month later.

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