US newspaper circulations dive

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The decline in newspaper circulations in the US is continuing to accelerate, piling additional pressure on companies whose advertising revenue has also taken a dive this year.

The hotly anticipated six-monthly sales figures for the nation's daily and Sunday titles were released yesterday and were worse than expected, showing falls of 4.6 per cent and 4.8 per cent, respectively, compared to the same period last year.

The two best-selling titles in the country – USA today and Rupert Murdoch's Wall Street Journal – managed to keep their average daily circulation flat in the six months to 30 September, but below them, some of the most famous names in regional publishing suffered deep declines.

The Houston Chronicle, the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Boston Globe all lost more than a tenth of their sales, the Audit Bureau of Circulations said.

The ABC figures track more than 500 titles. The latest circulation decline of 4.6 per cent for daily papers compares with 3.6 per cent for the six months ended March 2008 and 2.6 per cent a year ago.

Analysts and company executives say that, for more than a year now, newspapers have been scaling back the number of free or discounted copies they offer and stopping distribution in hard-to-reach localities that hold less interest for advertisers. The idea is to give up the less profitable circulation in the hope of boosting margins.

Nonetheless, yesterday's figures make unequivocally gloomy reading. John Morton, whose Morton Research Inc in Maryland has analysed the newspaper industry for decades, says that circulations are probably on an underlying downward trend of 3 per cent a year.

"Some newspapers are still cutting back circulation deliberately, and the economic unease also tends to have a negative effect. But then you have the trend that began in the late Eighties, which is that you don't have young people taking up newspaper reading like they used to. I don't know that it will ever bottom," Mr Morton said.

Profitability has declined sharply at all the major newspaper groups this year. Last week, the New York Times Co, publisher of the Boston Globe and other regional titles as well as the New York Times, said it was considering axing its dividend, after credit rating agencies downgraded its debt to junk status.

And most companies have been cutting costs, scaling back newsroom budgets, reducing staff numbers and slimming down the number of sections their papers publish. In a move that shocked the industry, the biggest one-off cut by a major newspaper, New Jersey's Star-Ledger told its journalists last week that 40 per cent of them would lose their jobs by the end of the year.