Newspaper Circulation Continues to Decline

By Annys Shin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 3, 2005

Circulation at 814 of the nation's largest daily newspapers declined 1.9 percent over the six months ended March 31 compared with the same period last year, an industry trade group reported yesterday.

The decline continued a 20-year trend in the newspaper industry as people increasingly turn to other media such as the Internet and 24-hour cable news networks for information.

Newspaper industry officials also blamed the National Do Not Call Registry, which has forced newspapers to rely less on telemarketing to secure subscribers, and a shift in strategy among major newspapers away from using short-term promotions to acquire new readers.

"Of all the things that have happened, [the change in telemarketing rules] had the single largest impact," said John Kimball, chief marketing officer for the Newspaper Association of America, an industry trade group. Newspapers relied on telemarketing to acquire an average of 60 to 65 percent of their home delivery subscribers, Kimball said. As a result of the registry, newspapers have cut that figure down to 50 or 55 percent.

Kimball also said newspapers are focusing less on short-term promotions and more on going after people who are likely to subscribe for a longer period. Such subscribers "take a lot longer to acquire in the first place, and acquisition costs are higher," he said.

For the six months ended March 31, The Washington Post reported a weekday circulation decline of 2.7 percent, to 751,871, compared with the corresponding period a year earlier. Sunday circulation decreased 2.4 percent, to 1,000,565.

Post executives said the company is relying slightly less on so-called third-party sales, in which newspapers sell copies in bulk at a discounted rate to outside groups that distribute the paper, usually for free. But executives did not attribute the decline to any one factor and said the figures are an improvement.

"Our numbers are not down quite so much this year compared to last year," said publisher Boisfeuillet Jones Jr.

Circulation of the Wall Street Journal, owned by Dow Jones & Co., decreased by 0.8 percent, to 2,070,498, said Amy Wolfcale, a Wall Street Journal spokeswoman.

Wolfcale attributed the decline to a 23 percent increase in price over the past three years and a change in distribution strategy as the Journal prepares for a scheduled September rollout of a weekend edition. The Journal, for example, has stopped supplying some public waiting rooms where people don't congregate on the weekends, Wolfcale said.

About one-third of U.S. newspapers reported gains in circulation, according to an analysis by the Newspaper Association of America.

Among those adding subscribers was the New York Times, which reported weekday circulation of 1,136,433 and Sunday circulation of 1,680,582. Its weekday circulation is up 0.2 percent from the same period last year.

New York Times executives attributed the growth in the newspaper's circulation to its increased distribution nationally. The Times is now available by home delivery in 318 markets, up from 266 at this time last year, said spokeswoman Catherine J. Mathis.

Circulation at USA Today, owned by Gannett Co., was flat, said spokesman Steve Anderson. As of March 31, its weekday circulation was 2,281,830, Anderson said.

USA Today's circulation held steady even as the newspaper increased its newsstand price to 75 cents from 50 cents in September. Anderson attributed the stability in circulation in part to higher travel-related sales.

Circulation at the New York Post was virtually flat in the six-month period compared with the corresponding period a year ago, at 678,086. The New York Post still lags behind its arch rival, the New York Daily News, which saw its circulation slip 1.5 percent, to 735,536.

The circulation figures were the first released in the wake of circulation scandals at several major newspapers last year. The Chicago Sun-Times, Newsday and the Dallas Morning News said they overstated their circulation. As a result, the Audit Bureau of Circulations censured them and did not include their circulation numbers in yesterday's report.

Staff writer Frank Ahrens contributed to this report.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company