NEW YORK — Circulation continues to drop severely at U.S. newspapers, though the rate of decline slowed from the previous six-month reporting period.
Figures released Monday by the Audit Bureau of Circulations show average weekday circulation fell 8.7 percent in the six months that ended March 31, compared with the same period a year earlier. Sunday circulation fell 6.5 percent.
That’s a slight improvement from April through September of last year, when average weekday circulation dropped 10.6 percent from a year earlier and Sunday circulation fell 7.5 percent.
Even so, the top 25 newspapers in the country showed some huge circulation losses.
The San Francisco Chronicle’s weekday circulation dropped nearly 23 percent from the year before to 241,330. At The Washington Post, average weekday circulation fell 13.1 percent to 578,482 and dropped 8.2 percent to 797,679 on Sundays.
USA Today lost 13.6 percent of its circulation and averaged 1.83 million. That extended a slump that began with a slowdown in travel during the recession, which trimmed sales where USA Today is especially popular, such as hotels and airports.
In a way, the new circulation figures mirror the industry’s advertising trends. While most major newspapers continue to see ad revenue decline compared with year-ago figures, the drop is becoming less extreme. Newspapers are getting some help from easy comparisons — they are holding their latest ad numbers up to results from the depths of the recession — but economic improvement is also starting to restore advertising budgets.
The circulation numbers are getting a small boost from a looser standard by the Audit Bureau on how certain online editions are counted. Under a change that took effect last April, if a newspaper bundles a print subscription with a digital replica of its printed editions or access to its website, it can count a subscriber twice — as long as the online edition costs even a penny extra.
USA Today’s decline last year allowed The Wall Street Journal to surpass it as the newspaper with the biggest U.S. circulation. In Monday’s report, the Journal once again posted the only gain in circulation among the top 25 newspapers that had comparable figures from a year ago. It grew its circulation 0.5 percent to 2.09 million.
However, the Journal would have had a slight decline in circulation were it only counting printed newspapers. The Journal’s paid online circulation rose about 31,000 from a year ago to 414,025, offsetting a decline of about 20,000 on the print side.
The No. 3 newspaper, The New York Times, reported an 8.5 percent decline in weekday circulation during the most recent period and a 5.2 percent drop on Sundays. The Times’ average circulation was 951,063 on weekdays and 1.38 million on Sundays.
The new figures came as the Journal launched a metro edition in the New York City region to compete more aggressively with the Times for local readers and advertisers. The first metro section ran 16 pages Monday with articles detailing a rat infestation on Manhattan’s Upper East Side and the New York state budget crisis alongside advertising from Bloomingdale’s and Macy’s.
The San Jose Mercury News got itself onto the list of top newspapers in the most recent reporting period, but not with a big gain in circulation. It ranked No. 6 on Sundays, and No. 8 on weekdays, because it started treating the Contra Costa Times and Oakland Tribune, which also are owned by MediaNews Group Inc., as regional editions of the Mercury News. It does that to drive home to advertisers how many readers it reaches in the area. On a combined basis their circulation was actually down 5.4 percent during the week to 516,701.
There are many reasons for the declines in newspaper circulation, including the rise of free news on the Web. Publishers also have sought to offset losses in advertising revenue by raising newsstand and subscription prices. And some newspapers have reduced delivery to unprofitable areas.
In a statement, Newspaper Association of America President John Sturm said that declining circulation does not offer a full picture of the industry’s health.
He pointed to recent studies by Scarborough Research and Nielsen Online showing nearly 100 million adults still read a printed newspaper every day and that newspaper Web sites averaged more than 74 million unique visitors a month during the first quarter.