NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. newspapers reported sharper circulation declines in the latest figures released by an industry group on Monday, pointing to more glum times ahead for publishers already racked by falling advertising revenue.
Average weekday circulation at 507 papers was about 38.2 million copies for the period ended September 30, 2008, according to the U.S. Audit Bureau of Circulations. That was a 4.6 percent drop from the same six-month period a year ago.
From September 2006 to 2007, the drop was only 2.6 percent.
Sunday circulation, which was measured at 571 papers, fell 4.9 percent to about 43.6 million copies. That drop also accelerated -- last year's Sunday decline was 3.5 percent.
Circulation figures refer to copies of newspapers that people pay for, as opposed to bulk or discounted copies that are counted in other ways.
The figures are important measures of the industry's health in two ways: on a simple level, they illustrate the bigger trend of how many fewer people are reading print newspapers. From a business standpoint, they also are an important measure for advertisers trying to determine whom they will pay to carry their messages.
Lately, advertisers have been taking that money away from newspapers and moving it online. Ad budgets also are shrinking because of the world financial crisis, which lately has added a new financial squeeze to newspapers.
Several newspaper publishers including McClatchy Co and Media General Inc reported damaging declines in ad revenue.
The papers point instead to rising total readership figures, including Web use. But without quantifiable gains in paid circulation and advertising, less revenue is coming in, and many publishers are finding it harder to pay off their debt.
Weekday circulation at The New York Times fell 3.6 percent. Sunday circulation fell 4.1 percent. At The Washington Post, weekday circulation fell 1.9 percent and Sunday circulation fell 3.2 percent.
Gannett Co Inc reported nearly unchanged circulation for USA Today, the largest U.S. newspaper. Weekday circulation at The Wall Street Journal, owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp, also was flat.
Most of the papers experiencing the worst declines are those that serve larger U.S. cities, particularly ones in areas hurt by the housing bust and suffering from high unemployment. In addition, other city papers often have a hard time retaining readers who are attracted by free news online, not to mention free classified ads.
The Boston Globe, which is owned by the Times Co, reported a 10 percent drop in weekday circulation. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune, reported a 4.3 percent decline.
That paper, one of the largest U.S. dailies, is in the midst of a restructuring. Its owner, private-equity owner Avista Capital Partners, has skipped debt payments as its health worsens. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, owned by private held Cox Enterprises, reported a 13.6 percent drop in weekday circulation.
Few papers posted circulation increases, but the ones that did tended to be from smaller cities and towns where there are fewer options for a comprehensive news report.
They included the Trenton Times in New Jersey, where circulation rose 5.34 percent. Papers such as the Deseret Morning News in Salt Lake City, Utah; the Erie, Pennsylvania Times-News; the Baton Rouge Advocate in Louisiana; and the Colorado Springs Gazette reported circulation gains of 2 percent or less.
Editing by Derek Caney