Circulation drops at U.S. newspapers as readers turn to online news sources


U.S. newspapers continued to lose subscribers in recent months as readers increasingly turned to online news sources and price increases scared off cost-conscious consumers.

The average weekday circulation of the nearly 400 daily papers that reported sales slid 10.6% to 30.4 million from April to September compared with the same six-month period in 2008, the Audit Bureau of Circulations said Monday. That was bigger than the 7.1% decline recorded during the previous six-month period.

Newspapers have seen their circulation decline sharply in recent years as readers increasingly have turned to online sources for news. Many of these websites are operated by the same newspapers that are losing traditional subscribers, but publishers are struggling to bring in enough online ad dollars to replace the loss of print advertising. And readers have been reluctant to pay for access to newspaper websites.


Many metropolitan dailies have been reducing staff and content while raising the price of single copies and home delivery -- a combination that has scared away many cost-conscious consumers, said Ken Doctor, a newspaper analyst at consulting firm Outsell Inc. in Burlingame, Calif.

Newspapers also have been paring back circulation in far-flung areas where the small number of subscribers doesn’t justify the cost of delivery. And more than 90 papers have stopped publishing on at least one day of the week, Doctor noted.

“All of this says to readers, ‘Go online, go online, go online,’ ” he said.

Of the nation’s five biggest daily papers, four reported circulation declines. The Wall Street Journal displaced USA Today as the nation’s largest daily, notching a slim 0.6% gain in subscribers to push its total to slightly more than 2 million, including paid subscribers to its online edition.

USA Today’s circulation fell 17% to 1.9 million as the Gannett Co. paper, which gets many of its sales at hotels and airports, was hit by the slump in travel.

The New York Times’ circulation fell 7.3% to 927,851, making it the No. 3 paper. The Los Angeles Times was fourth with daily circulation of 657,467, down 11.1% from a year ago.

The Washington Post rounded out the top five with a loss of 6.4% to 582,844.

Industrywide, Sunday circulation held up better than weekday sales, falling 7.5% compared with a year ago. The Times’ Sunday circulation fell 6.8% to 983,702.


In a statement, Bill Nagel, The Times’ executive vice president of business services, said the declines had been expected and were in line with those experienced by other newspapers in major metropolitan markets.

Many smaller papers have fared better than big-city dailies partly because the local news sought by their readers is often less available on the Internet. They also are less reliant on big national advertisers.

That trend was evident in the circulation results for some smaller Southern California papers. For instance, the Daily Breeze in Torrance saw its circulation fall only 2.7% to 61,925, while the Pasadena Star-News lost subscribers at half the overall industry rate, falling 5.3% to 24,362. The Long Beach Press-Telegram’s circulation fell 8.2% to 71,411.

“If small papers do their work well, they are publishing news that you can’t get anyplace else,” Doctor said.

Among other regional papers, circulation fell 26% to 95,938 at the Daily News in Woodland Hills and 24.3% to 113,182 at the Riverside Press-Enterprise, which has been hit hard by the housing slump.

Circulation fell 10.1% to 212,293 at the Orange County Register and dropped 10% to 242,705 at the San Diego Union-Tribune. In the Bay Area, the circulation of the San Francisco Chronicle fell 26% to 251,782, while the Oakland Tribune recorded a 7.3% increase in subscribers to 68,067 -- one of the biggest percentage gains among the handful of dailies that reported increases.


In a recent report, former Washington Post executive Leonard Downie Jr. and journalism professor Michael Schudson expressed concern that dwindling circulation and financial losses were threatening newspapers’ ability to act as watchdogs of governments and corporations.