Paid daily and Sunday circulation fell at both of Seattle's daily newspapers, reversing a local trend that had countered nationwide circulation losses at metropolitan papers around the U.S. At the same time, senior Seattle Times and Post-Intelligencer officials said the papers have made a strategic decision to cut back on their efforts to sign up new subscribers.
The Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC), a newspaper industry trade group that tracks circulation figures for all the major U.S. newspapers, said the P-I's paid circulation fell 7.8 percent, from 127,584 to 117,572, for the six months ended Sept. 30, compared to a similar period last year. The Seattle Times circulation dropped 7.6 percent, from 215,311 to 198,741, during the same period, while Sunday circulation for the papers' combined paper fell 9.1 percent to 382,332.
The average daily circulation drop for all the 507 U.S. newspapers audited by ABC was 4.6 percent during the current reporting period.
Ken Bunting, the P-I's associate publisher, told Crosscut the paper's circulation loss was not unexpected. Bunting said both the P-I and Times have all but eliminated free "bonus" circulation boosters, such as extra daily copies delivered to Sunday subscribers, and have cut back substantially on distribution of free and discount copies of newspapers at hotels.
"We've also reduced our efforts to sell new subscriptions," Bunting said. With brief exceptions, both the P-I and Times have seen their circulation figures drop steadily in recent years. The latest ABC figures mark the first time in more than a decade that the Times circulation has dropped below 200,000, while Bunting said he could not recall when the P-I's circulation was below 120,000.
The Times and P-I function under a joint operating agreement (JOA) in which the Times prints, distributes, and markets both papers, but they are separately owned and published. The latest circulation figures put the Times and P-I in line with virtually the entire newspaper industry, which is facing plummeting circulation and advertising losses.
In its report today, ABC said circulation at the Everett Herald was down 1.8 percent, and Spokane's Spokesman-Review had a drop of 4.5 percent. In Tacoma, the News Tribune was down 5.2 percent. Nationally, almost all major urban dailies showed circulation declines, with the exception of The Wall Street Journal and USA Today.
In a memo circulated today to Times staffers, Alan Fisco, the Times' vice president of circulation, said the papers were also making a "targeted reduction of new subscription sales." Under that plan, Fisco said, the Times and P-I were cutting back on seeking new subscribers in areas where the cost of finding subscribers was high and customer-retention rates were poor.
"While paid circulation numbers are down, our print readership is strong and stable," Fisco's memo said. Both Fisco and Bunting said the ABC paid circulation figures released today do not account for multiple readers of a single print copy or users of the papers' online Web sites.
Times Web sites are averaging more than eight million individual visitors each month and a total of more than 90 million monthly page views, Fisco said. Combining print and online operations, he said the Times reaches about 70 percent of all adults in King and Snohomish counties.
"Circulation numbers don't tell the whole story," Bunting said. "We obviously like positive numbers more than negative ones, but both papers have a solid steady audience."
The circulation strategy of Seattle's dailies may also reflect coming changes in newspaper technology. Hearst plans to begin field testing a new digital e-paper next year that would allow subscribers to download an online real-time version of the current print edition onto a flexible wireless screen. If successful, the e-paper could allow newspaper owners to cut more than half their operating overhead while permitting advertisers to target readers.
The e-paper, which is being developed in Palo Alto and New York under the code-name FirstPaper, is scheduled to be tested initially in Houston and San Francisco. Last year, Hearst officials denied the company planned to add Seattle to the field testing. Asked yesterday if those plans had changed, Bunting told Crosscut, "We are engaged in all sorts of multi-platform efforts. Is there a plan for the P-I to become an e-paper, or go all-digital? That's not something I am aware of."