U.S. newspapers press for more positive image

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The U.S. newspaper industry is pressing hard to show advertisers that its products are worth every dollar despite bleak financial forecasts, with data released on Monday showing a rise in Web site visitors.

The number of unique visitors per month to U.S. newspaper Web sites rose 15 percent to 57.3 million, or a third of all Internet users, in the second half of 2006, the Newspaper Association of America said on Monday, citing data from measurement company Nielsen/NetRatings.

The announcement comes on the day that the association debuts new ads to cast papers as a place that readers visit regardless of whether they do it in print or on the Internet.

“Newspaper: The Multi-Medium” is the tag line that will appear on the ads, which were designed by The Martin Agency, based in Richmond, Virginia. It is designed, the association said, to present papers as “both contemporary and aggressive.”

“The ad campaign emphasizes newspapers’ ability to combine the strengths of the Internet and print while expanding its reach and influence in a time of critical transformation for the industry,” the association’s Chief Executive John Sturm said in a statement.

Demonstrating growth in visitors to newspapers’ Web sites is critical to the industry. Their numbers are growing as fewer people buy print editions.

Online advertising revenue is growing as well, and can make a crucial difference in publishers’ financial results.

Speaking last week in New York City at a discussion on the future of newspapers, McClatchy Co. Chief Executive Gary Pruitt said this was the case at his company.

Online ads were about 7.8 percent of McClatchy’s total advertising last year, “and that made the difference between growth and decline last year for our company,” he said.

Younger adults also are reading, with 64.5 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds in the top 50 markets reading a newspaper during the course of a week, the association said, citing data provided by Scarborough Research.

Such news is welcome to Wall Street, but shares of newspaper publishers have languished anyway as monthly and quarterly results show diminishing print ad sales and falling paid circulation.

Proving their transformation from a stodgy ink-on-paper business is a big challenge for the newspaper business, said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism in Washington, D.C.

“It’s trying to persuade the advertising community that it’s not a dying industry, but an emerging one making the transition to a new platform,” he said. “The way you tell the Street something is by improving your advertising revenue.”

Even with the help of online readers, average week-day readership fell at some papers during the second half of 2006 compared with the same period a year ago, according to data provided by the newspaper association.

At Belo Corp.’s Dallas Morning News, readership fell 7.5 percent to about a million. At the Boston Globe, published by The New York Times Co., readership fell 2.5 percent to about 1 million, according to numbers provided by the association and compiled by Scarborough.