The circulation of America's daily newspapers plunged over the last year in one of its sharpest declines in recent history, according to data released on Monday.
The slide continues a decades-long trend and adds to the woes of a mature industry already struggling with layoffs and facing the potential sale of some of its flagships.
Overall, average daily circulation dropped by 2.8 percent during the six-month period ended Sept. 30, compared with the same period last year, according to an industry analysis of data released by the Audit Bureau of Circulations. Circulation for Sunday papers fell by 3.4 percent. The figures appear to be the steepest in any comparable six-month period in at least 15 years. They come after the sale of Knight Ridder newspapers this year and in the midst of a possible sale of the Tribune Co, whose assets include 11 newspapers.
The circulation losses also follow recent sour earnings reports, raising questions about why anyone would want to buy a newspaper now. The losses have accelerated as the industry tries to adjust to the steady migration of readers and advertisers to the Internet. Papers in major metropolitan areas, where more homes are wired for broadband, fared worse than those in smaller markets. Newspaper executives also attribute some of the decline to deliberate strategies to eliminate so-called bulk sales to third-party sponsors that offer papers free in places like hotels. Advertisers view them as having little value because the people taking them did not want them enough to pay for them.
The Los Angeles Times lost 8 percent of its daily circulation and 6 percent on Sunday. The Boston Globe, owned by The New York Times Co, lost 6.7 percent of its daily circulation and almost 10 percent on Sunday. The New York Times, one of the few big papers where circulation had held steady over the last few reporting periods, lost about 3.5 percent of its circulation both daily and Sunday. The Washington Post's declines were nearly the same. The Wall Street Journal's daily paper fell by less than 2 percent but its Weekend Edition, which comes out on Saturday, reported a 6.7 percent drop. As of Sept. 30, total circulation for the nation's dailies had dropped to 43.7 million. Daily circulation peaked in 1984, at 63.3 million.
Nonetheless, three billionaires in Los Angeles have said they are interested in buying the Los Angeles Times, which is owned by the Tribune. Jack Welch, the former chief executive of General Electric, has mused about buying the Globe, although the New York Times Co has said it is not for sale. Others have expressed interest in papers elsewhere.
Prospective buyers are interested, in part, because despite their problems, newspapers generally still turn a profit and remain attractive to advertisers who want to reach a mass audience. Many papers have higher profit margins than the average Fortune 500 company. Moreover, many companies see promise in their online publications, which are drawing an increasing number of readers each year. At the New York Times, for example, the number of people who read the paper online now surpasses the number who buy the print edition.
The newspaper association said that for the third quarter of this year, 57 million people visited a newspaper Web site, an increase of 24 percent over the period a year ago. And revenues from online advertisers are growing.