"They're putting a better face on it," said Rem Reider, editor and senior vice president of American Journalism Review, a trade periodical. "In a sense by focusing on the readership, it takes away from the seriousness of the problem."
Newspaper circulation has been on the decline for a generation, first triggered by changes in the workplace that withered evening papers and then in the 1990s as the Internet presented new challenges. Some analysts said newspapers hastened the decline in some cases by targeting marketing and coverage to demographics they thought advertisers favored.
"You may take extra effort to reach those areas advertisers are interested in and cut back in the areas they aren't interested in and lose some readers in the process," said Miles Groves, a media economist in Washington.
Newspaper Services of America, an Illinois media buyer and planner, said that although newspapers are still a good buy, its clients are increasingly looking to the other outlets, such as the Internet, radio and direct mail.
"It's clearly not as attractive as it was eight or 10 years ago," said Bob Shamberg, chief executive of the media company whose clients include Sears, Home Depot and BMW.
The circulation issue has moved into the courts and become a political hot button in some areas. Last month, Shorewest Realtors Inc. sued the publishers of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for, it claimed, deliberately overstating circulation since 1996. And a Texas district attorney subpoenaed documents last month related to a 2004 circulation scandal at The Dallas Morning News.