The Sun posted among the highest percentage circulation losses in the country last winter in a report that showed circulation drops at many of the nation's largest papers.
The U.S. circulation drop, reported yesterday and described as "Bloody Monday" by a newspaper industry Web site, was spurred by several factors, from increased competition for readers to changes in the way newspapers calculate their sales.
Just as scattered reports of fabricated stories have shaken the editorial side of news organizations during the past year, concerns about circulation credibility have gripped the business side of the industry. Like other established mass media, newspapers are being forced to respond to a new generation of challengers for its audience from the Internet and telecommunications companies.
Circulation scandals at Newsday of Long Island, N.Y., and the Spanish language paper Hoy - like The Sun owned by Tribune Co. - as well as at the Chicago Sun-Times and The Dallas Morning News have caused turmoil in the industry, which has long based its value to advertisers on its circulation numbers. Chicago-based Tribune Co. took a $90 million pretax charge against its earnings for the problems at Newsday and Hoy.
The Sun recorded an 11.3 percent average daily circulation decline for the six months from October 2004 to March 2005, compared with the similar period in 2003-2004, according to numbers released yesterday by the Audit Bureau of Circulations, a Schaumburg, Ill.-based auditing organization. Sunday circulation at The Sun was off 8.5 percent.
By comparison, average daily circulation for the 814 newspapers included in the report fell 1.9 percent from a year ago, and Sunday circulation decreased about 2.5 percent overall for 643 newspapers, according to the Newspaper Association of America in Vienna, Va.
Circulation fell at many of the country's largest newspapers. The Wall Street Journal, the second-largest with 2 million daily issues, dropped 0.8 percent. The Chicago Tribune was down 6.6 percent, The Washington Post was down 2.7 percent and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution was down 2.4 percent.
Gannett-flagship USA Today, the nation's largest newspaper with 2.28 million papers sold daily, and the New York Post were among the rare papers that saw slight circulation bumps, jumping 0.05 percent and 0.01 percent, respectively.
Officials at various papers, including The Sun, say the reduced numbers reflect intentional cuts in circulation distribution, such as curtailing hotel and school promotions. The start of the do-not-call legislation in 2003 also dried up telemarketing strategies to gain and retain subscribers.
Changes in March
In March, The Sun stopped distributing copies at conventions and hotels. It also scaled back distribution of free copies to schools - a practice previously included in circulation counts, a spokesman said.
"It's a response by The Sun to advertisers about circulation in light of the accounting problems that some newspapers have had," said Alonza Williams, public affairs manager for The Sun.
Williams said the company also halted discounting of the daily paper sold by street "hawkers," another factor in the circulation falloff. The Sun also recently began dropping subscriptions of people who consistently didn't pay their bills, he said.
"We brought our billing system in-house and stopped service to customers who had a history of nonpayment," Williams said. "Before, delivery people would sometimes let people get behind on their payment."
Newspapers across the country also said that new telemarketing laws that restrict telephone solicitations for business have also hampered circulation building efforts. Williams said that the declines had nothing to do with reader dissatisfaction with the paper. He said the company has introduced several new sections that surveys have shown readers are happy with.
The Sun recorded double-digit percentage drops Wednesdays, which fell 16.8 percent to 253,137 from 304,131; Fridays, down 14.5 percent to 292,089 from 341,522; and Saturdays, down 10.1 percent to 260,813 from 290,115. Sunday circulation fell to 430,675 from 470,543.
The Newspaper Association of America said that readership numbers - those who read the paper even if they don't buy it - are more accurate measures of the medium's hold than circulation numbers. Also, many former newspaper readers, the organization said, may be reading the newspapers' Web sites - expanding the reach of news organizations much further than before.
"Who reads the paper or how many readers the paper has is much more important than how many copies are sold," said John Kimball, the association's chief marketing officer.
Others contend that this argument masks a deeper problem for newspapers if advertisers begin to turn away.