Tuesday, May 03, 2005

New Circulation Figures From Los Angeles Times Not As Bad As Some Expected

The new circulation figures from the L.A. Times for March are not as bad as might have been expected by listening too carefully to Dennis FitzSimmons, the Chicago Tribune chairman.

FitzSimmons had indicated there would be a further hit, but it turns out that Times daily circulation is actually more than 5,000 higher than it was last September, when it was reported as having sunk to 902,000.

The year-to-year figures still aren't good. According to information the Times has given to the Audit Bureau of Circulation, daily circulation in March was 907,997, down 6.5% compared to March, 2004, and Sunday circulation was 1,253,849, down 7.9% from a year ago.

This remains a more dramatic drop than reported by almost all other American papers during the same time frame. But not far behind to the L.A. Times in a drop was the Chicago Tribune, which fell 4.7% on Sundays, to 953,815 and 6.9% daily to 573,943. The Baltimore Sun, another former Times-Mirror paper, now owned by the Tribune Col, was down 11.5% in daily circulation and 8.4% in Sunday circulation.

It's not a surprise, certainly, that they're poor at keeping up circulation not only in L.A., but in Chicago and Baltimore as well. FitzSimmons operations have been dumb operations, which is what one would expect, given some of the statements FitzSimmons is prone to make.

Meanwhile, the struggle continues elsewhere. The Washington Post is down 2.4% on Sundays to 1,000,565, the Philadelphia Inquirer is down 3.3% on Sundays to 744,242 and the New York Post is down 4.1% to 427,039. But the New York Times, which continues to develop its national sales and is bucking the trend, is up 0.2% Sundays to 1,680,582 and up 0.2% daily to 1,114,000.

The New York Times managers are brainier than the ones at the L.A. Times, which has folded much of its national circulation. The NYT has expanded home deliverry to homes in 318 localities this year, compared to 266 last year, and will expand to seven more localities this year.

Judging from what the L.A. Times implied in the Eric Slater matter, Times employees may not even be able to find their way to 318 localities, much less deliver the paper there.

My son, a Navy Lieutenant JG, gets home delivery of the NYT in Washington, one of that newspaper's young readers.

But at least the new L.A. Times publisher, Jeff Johnson, has put out a more encouraging statement than the former publisher, John Puerner used to about the paper's circulation plans.

In a bulletin to the staff, Johnson said the Times is undertaking a $10.5 million circulation campaign and "is moving on many fronts to improve these circulation trends." He spoke of $8 million for a direct marketing campaign.

"We expect to see results (next) September," Johnson said.

I take this at face value. If Johnson can't bring about results, that would be bad news, but his apparent determination to do so strikes a welcome new note as far as the Tribune ownership is concerned.

The do-not-call restrictions implanted nationwide last year have clearly had an adverse effect on newspaper circulation. Still every paper had to confront these, and most have not done as badly as the L.A. Times.

The thing to remember is that most telephone users don't want to get these calls. In fact, beyond signing up for the do-not-call commercial lists, I've taken myself to hanging up on all charity callers and most political callers. I only respond to mailed charity solicitations. Most annoying are calls from politicians who aren't actually on the phone, but merely have a tape recorded message to deliver.

The L.A. Times, as others, is simply going to have to live with the new rules.

In the meantime, Johnson also reports the Times "deliberately reduced third party bulk sales." He doesn't explain why, but I would say the paper shouldn't be giving up on any circulation no matter where it is and how it's made as long as its legal and in accord with sound accounting practices..

The bottom line is, there is reason for concern, but not for panic, providing Johnson moves aggressively in the months ahead to reverse the trend. The small hike in daily circulation over the last six months is grounds for some limited optimism at the LAT.

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