With circulation cooling off, competition heating up and retail distribution thinning out, the Washington City Paper took to the streets yesterday afternoon, deploying 20 hawkers to offer the paper outside 10 Metro stations in the District.

Leaving the morning rush hour to two other free papers, the Washington Examiner and the Express, publisher Amy Austin seized what she refers to as "happy hour," from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., when the single and hip are thinking about restaurants and entertainment, the heart of the City Paper's content.

"It makes more sense to approach them from the frame of mind when they're going out versus when they're going to work," said Austin.

Clad in an orange T-shirt, hawker Kenneth Newman offered the paper at Farragut North yesterday afternoon, personifying the competition among free papers: Mornings, he hands out the Examiner.

"Would you like a free copy of the City Paper?" he politely asked pedestrians. Some eagerly accepted while others steered past him and fellow hawker Emily Christensen.

One passerby, intrigued by the cover story about Examiner gossip columnist Karen Feld, took a copy. Another commuter, hobbling on crutches, did the same.

The hawking strategy comes after circulation for the alternative weekly newspaper that includes local news, gossip, entertainment listings and personal advertisements fell to 88,730 last year from 92,404 in 2003.

Launched in 1981, the tabloid was originally called 1981 and became the Washington City Paper the following year. Today, about 90 percent of its readers are single, with a median age of 39, said Austin.

One reason for the decline was because fewer retailers allow the City Paper to be distributed in their stores, Austin said.

"There's always been a sense that we're hard to find, which is true," she said. "But lately it's harder to find places that will distribute us. It has to do with what I call the sanitation of downtown."

A few restaurants and grocers stopped carrying the paper, she said, after customers complained that readers left the newspapers on tables or threw it on the streets. Also, more chain retailers, with policies prohibiting distribution of local newspapers, are moving in, she said.

One reader, Howard University student Javita Everhart, 22, said she has never seen the newspaper on the street. She reads the online version to keep up with entertainment news.

Another college student, Ryan Hackney, 18, said he reads the paper but sometimes can't find it. "A lot of times, I get it out of the boxes, but if I come after 3, there's no paper left out there," said Hackney, who likes the new hawking strategy.

Last year, the City Paper was distributed at 1,409 spots in the city -- both at retail outlets and inside news boxes. That's about equal to the number of locations where it was distributed in 2003 because 60 more street boxes were added to replace the lost retail outlets.

The boxes have been brightened up, now black and orange instead of the more subdued gray and red to compete for pedestrian attention on streets sometimes lined with a dozen newspaper boxes.

Since the Washington Examiner debuted in February, it has also been distributed by hawkers outside Metro stations as well as by home delivery. Readers can also find the publication inside orange news boxes on city streets.

According to the newspaper's Web site, it has a circulation of 260,188, but Examiner officials declined to comment.

The five-day-a-week Express, a free tabloid owned by The Washington Post Co., was launched in August 2003. Initially, 125,000 copies were printed and they were distributed by hawkers and also were placed inside news boxes.

Today, 186,000 copies are printed. Copies are distributed by hawkers between 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. outside Metro stations and are available inside 1,600 yellow news boxes.

"There's been a real resurgence in the use of hawkers with the emergence of these free newspapers both in the U.S. and especially in Europe over the last few years," said Christopher Ma, publisher of the Express.

In the early 1900s, hawkers were commonplace in the United States, said John Murray, vice president of circulation marketing for the Vienna-based Newspaper Association of America. Their use declined with the growth of subscriptions, he said.

Now, newspapers use hawkers to target occasional readers, and if their numbers are small it's still worthwhile to attract them, he said.

"The bottom line is if you have hawkers out there you are going to sell more newspapers than if you don't," Murray said.

Emily Christensen is one of 20 hawkers the Washington City Paper deploys. The alternative weekly is trying to offset dwindling in-store distribution.Kenneth Newman takes the City Paper to the streets outside the Farragut North Metro station.