Charting 4-Year Circ Plunge at Major Papers

NEW YORK In just four years, the top newspapers in the U.S. have collectively lost about 1.4 million copies in daily circulation, Editor & Publisher has found.

While the industry has lost about 10 percent of circulation overall in the past four years among the leading papers, some have bled much more than others during the same period, according to an E&P analysis of data from the Audit Bureau of Circulations.

The San Francisco Chronicle‘s daily circulation dropped almost 30 percent, or 150,000 copies, over the past four years, while The Los Angles Times lost 20 percent of daily circulation or more than 200,000 copies over the past four years.

The Boston Globe plunged about 20 percent (down nearly 90,000 copies) and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution almost 17 percent (-64,000). The Washington Post took an 8.8 percent hit (-98,000). The New York Times is down a somewhat more palatable 7.2 percent (-80,000).

The Wall Street Journal was down less than 4 percent, but that translated to a loss of close to 80,000 copies.

Most of the top 20 newspapers, as ranked by the six-month period ending September 2007, experienced losses in the high single digits or more looking at the previous four years.

There are some gainers, though: USA Today increased its circulation 2 percent and the New York Post grew 2.3 percent (but lost circ in its most recent report).

The list compares data from ABC FAS-FAX reports from the six-month period ending September 2003 and the same period for September 2007.

In that September 2003 report, overall daily circulation for the papers reporting to ABC fell about 0.4 percent, more or less the average decline (then). It wasn’t until the summer of 2004, when Newsday, The Dallas Morning News, the Chicago Sun-Times and others admitted to misstating circulation by thousands of copies, that overall circulation started dropping at least 2 percent.

The scandals caused advertisers and industry watchers to put circulation under a microscope. Publishers began cutting out what is considered “lesser quality” circulation. That type of circulation falls under the category “other paid.”

Many newspapers including the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Boston Globe began cutting other paid circulation — employee, hotel, newspapers in education and especially third-party sponsored copies — hence some of the steep decreases.

The do-not-call list, which went into effect in October 2003, is another reason circulation dropped during the period, as it cut into the ability of some papers to drive subscriptions via aggressive telemarketing.