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Big Papers Report Generally Higher Circulation in Past Six Months

November 1, 1996

NEW YORK (AP) _ The massive presses at the nation’s 10 biggest daily newspapers have been running a little harder these days, with circulation picking up at seven of the publications.

That represents something of a reversal and suggests a lengthy period of rising newsstand prices and retrenchment may be ending.

``It’s good news, but I approach all good news with caution,″ said Miles Groves, chief economist for the Newspaper Association of America. ``I think the fact that we are seeing the improvement of the top end is indicative that the medium does still have some life.″

Newspapers are largely driven by local economies where they operate, so it’s hard to say the circulation gains alone represent a nationwide trend. They were, however, seen at papers ranging from New York to Los Angeles and Chicago to Houston.

Circulation at The Wall Street Journal, the biggest daily, grew 1.2 percent to 1.78 million in the six months that ended Sept. 30, according to preliminary figures compiled by the Audit Bureau of Circulations and released Thursday. The figures were compared with the same period a year earlier.

Others among the top 10 with weekday circulation gains were USA Today (4.5 percent), Los Angeles Times (2.2 percent), New York Daily News (0.5 percent), Newsday (1.5 percent), Houston Chronicle (0.7 percent) and Chicago Sun-Times (1.6 percent).

Those citing declines were The New York Times (1.0 percent), The Washington Post (0.5 percent) and Chicago Tribune (0.6 percent).

Circulation figures represent an important way for advertisers to judge the reach of a newspaper, but such information provides an incomplete picture of the paper’s financial health.

``Newspaper companies have varying strategies related to circulation,″ said John Reidy, a media analyst at Smith Barney, a brokerage firm. ``What they really want is profitable circulation.″

In fact, many circulation declines of the past several years have been intentional, reflecting publisher efforts to cut costs. Sharply higher newsprint prices from mid-1994 through the end of 1995 were largely responsible.

Many newspapers raised newsstand and home subscription prices to offset the higher cost of newsprint, which increased about 40 percent in 1995 alone. The higher prices drove some customers away.

By September, though, newsprint prices had eased about 22 percent from a year earlier, according to the newspaper association, which is a trade group. With newsprint prices coming down, newspaper price increases also ended, and some papers even cut newsstand prices. That may have been one reason for the circulation gains.

One example: The Los Angeles Times, which posted the second-biggest circulation gain of the top 10 papers, cut its newsstand price in half midway through the six-month period.

``Some newspapers cut back some circulation in an effort to save money,″ said John Morton, a newspaper analyst and president of Morton Research Inc. Those cuts focused on outlying regions where copies were expensive to deliver and those outside areas advertisers wanted to reach.

Also helping circulation was the summer Olympic Games and political coverage leading up to next week’s elections. Major news stories often boost circulation.

Nonetheless, the improvement by the top 10 newspapers doesn’t reflect the entire industry. Behind the top 10 were a number of newspapers posting circulation declines, like the San Francisco Chronicle (0.5 percent), The Dallas Morning News (4.4 percent), The Boston Globe (5.6 percent) and The Philadelphia Inquirer (9.0 percent).

There were some other gainers, too, following in the footsteps of the top 10. They included the New York Post (3.9 percent), The Arizona Republic (4.4 percent) and The Orange County (Calif.) Register (1.1 percent).

Taken as a whole, Groves calculated the six-month circulation figures for the 25 biggest papers improved about 0.2 percent on average.

That meshes with a long-term trend dating back to the Truman administration. Total U.S. newspaper circulation stood at 58.2 million by year-end 1995, up from 53.8 million in 1950, according to the newspaper association. It reached 62.8 million in 1987.

Growth has been slightly faster for Sunday editions than for weekday copies. The trend differs between morning newspapers, which have seen continued growth, and afternoon papers, which have been generally declining due to changing household reading habits and competition from TV.

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