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May 10, 2011 > New rules don't stop newspaper circulation fall

New rules don't stop newspaper circulation fall

By Michael Liedtke, AP Business Writer

SAN FRANCISCO (AP), May 03 - Circulation fell at most of the largest U.S. newspapers compared with a year ago, despite new rules that give publishers more flexibility to boost their totals.

The figures released Tuesday, for the six months ending in March, mark the first time that newspapers have calculated circulation under the looser guidelines from the Audit Bureau of Circulations.

Among other things, the changes make it easier for newspapers to lump separate editions under different titles into one total. They also allow some copies that are distributed free of charge to be tallied.

Newspaper circulation has been falling as readers shift from the printed newspaper to free websites and mobile services. The electronic alternatives have become even more tempting as newspapers charge more for their print editions. Some of the falling circulation stemmed from publishers' decisions to shrink their delivery areas to save money.

Circulation is important because it affects advertising rates. Print advertising has long been the main source of revenue for newspapers, but it has been falling because of the uncertain economy and a shift by advertisers to free and cheaper options on the Internet.

Publishers are hoping the rule changes will help them sell more advertising by providing greater insight into the different ways newspapers reach readers.

Weekday circulation was lower than last year for all but seven of the 25 largest U.S. newspapers. According to ABC, none of those declines should have been triggered by the rule changes. If anything, ABC said, the new rules help increase circulation, so some totals might have been even lower without the changes.

Because of the changes, however, ABC didn't directly compare the latest circulation figures to the same period a year ago.

But that didn't stop the two largest daily newspapers, The Wall Street Journal and USA Today, from touting their gains - the Journal in a news release, and USA Today in a memo to staff.

The Journal's weekday circulation averaged 2.12 million during the latest period, about 25,000 more copies than a year ago. USA Today's weekday circulation averaged 1.83 million, an increase of fewer than 2,500 copies.

The New York Times remains the largest Sunday newspaper. Its Sunday circulation averaged 1.34 million, down about 37,000 copies from a year ago. Neither the Journal nor USA Today publishes on Sundays. On weekdays, the Times is third, with about 920,000 copies, down about 34,000.

Besides the Journal and USA Today, the other large daily newspapers reporting weekday circulation increases were: the San Jose Mercury News in California, the Star Tribune of Minneapolis, the Chicago Sun-Times, The Dallas Morning News and the St. Petersburg Times in Florida.

Even before the rule changes, newspapers have been allowed to count digital sales in their circulation. With the exception of The Wall Street Journal, digital subscriptions generally represent a small part of the circulation. That's expected to change as more newspapers charge for access on websites and mobile devices such as Apple Inc.'s iPad.

The Journal's electronic circulation increased 22 percent from last year to nearly 505,000. With just 40,000 digital subscribers, USA Today had the largest print circulation at 1.79 million.

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