No matter which way you look at it, the latest circulation figures from the embattled US newspaper industry are a disaster, with the circulations at the 379 reporting papers, covering the biggest in the country, falling more than 10% in the six months to September, the biggest fall ever.

Americans are increasingly going without newspapers and finding that they don’t need to go back.

The figures show that about 60% of America’s 25 largest papers posted declines of 10% or more.

Compared with the US, Australian papers are almost rock solid. The last figures to June this year showed circulations were down 1%-3% in most cases, although the Australian Financial Review suffered a bigger fall than that.

In Britain, figures out two weeks ago showed bigger fall in monthly and year to sales for the periods ending September. The Independent remained the biggest faller with a drop of more than 15% in the year to September. The Daily Telegraph was off 5.8%, The Guardian was down 9.7%. Among the tabloids, The Sun was off 2.4%, The Mirror, 9.3% and Daily Mail saw sales slip 3.6% over the 12 months.

American media stocks, especially newspapers, have done well in the great stockmarket rally, with share prices up strongly (admittedly from a low base) as investors have punted on them riding the economic recovery.

This belief is despite continuing falls in revenue (smaller than experienced in previous quarters). Final revenue figures are not in, but the drop in the third quarter has been put at about 23%, better than the 29% plunge in the three months to June, but still rotten.

In the US, News Corp was a winner and a loser. While The Wall Street Journal is now America’s biggest selling paper and had a small rise in sales, the devastating slump at the New York Post continued in the latest six-month period to the end of September.

Audit Bureau of Circulations figures show that average daily circulation dropped 10.6% in April-September period from the same six months of 2008. That was worse than the nasty 7.1% decline in the October 2008-March 2009 period and the 4.6% in the April-September period of 2008.

The circulations of Sunday papers fell 7.5% in the latest six-month period after a fall of more than 5.3% in the six months to March, 2008 and 4.8% in the six months to September 2008.

The figures from the circulation bureau compare 379 newspapers that had reported daily average sales for both the current and year-ago periods. The Sunday figure, compares 562 newspapers.

Again, that was a much steeper dip than the previous three recording periods, which saw dips of 5.37%, 4.85% and 4.6%.

US analysts blame the internet’s drain of classified ads and news away from papers, the impact of the recession, which has led to  consumers cutting what they see as unneeded expenses and the ageing demographics of papers, which are not being freshened up by younger readers replacing the older ones who die or stop buying papers. Cable TV continues to be a big drain, especially in news with its high rotation and expanding and constant coverage of big stories.

Continuing high unemployment is not helping, especially in and around New York, in Florida, California, and parts of the Midwest and Southwest of the country. Home foreclosures are also high in California, Florida and the Southwest, which means less home deliveries.

Industry changes have played a part: Detroit’s two newspapers cut back on delivery, several papers (in Denver and Seattle) stopped publishing and switched to net sites only and the previous biggest selling paper, USA Today, was hurt by changes in its hotel programs where big chains, led by Marriott have cut paper purchases for guests from two national papers one in many cities.

As expected, that saw News Corp’s Wall Street Journal surpass USA Today to become the nation’s No.1 newspaper, with an average daily circulation of 2.02 million. That was up 0.60% and was the only rise among the country’s top 25 papers.

USA Today shed 15% of its sales because of the hotel loss to 1.9 million a day.

But News Corp fared less well with The New York Post, whose weekday circulation fell almost 19%. That was after a fall of more than 20% in the March half year, meaning the paper’s sales are off sharply in the past year or more than 100,000 a day. The Post’s tabloid rival, the New York Daily News, owned by Mort Zuckerman, reported a 14% fall.

The New York Times’ daily sales dropped 7.3% to 927,851 (it’s the third biggest selling paper in the US)..

Sales at its Sunday edition, where it is the No.1 paper in the country eased 2.7%. The Boston Globe, which the Times tried to sell up to earlier this month, saw a nasty 18.5% drop in circulation for the September half year.

Among other top 10 US dailies, Tribune Co’s (it went into bankruptcy almost a year ago) Los Angeles Times posted an 11% fall and the Chicago Tribune fell 9.7%. The Washington Post dropped 6.4%.

The figures show that three of the top 25 papers, The Star-Ledger in Newark (22%) New Jersey, The San Francisco Chronicle (over 25%) and the Dallas Morning News (22%), suffered falls of 20% or more in the six months.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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