Selling 3,246 fewer copies a week isn't that big a deal for a major newspaper like the Los Angeles Times. But for the Pasadena Star-News, it means an 8.5 percent drop in circulation.

The Star-News and other local papers in William Dean Singleton's MediaNews Group chain followed the lead of the Times earlier in the year in boosting newsstand prices. Now they are paying the price.

And unless these smaller papers are able to beat the big boys handily on local coverage, they may be on the ropes.

"Small papers that have a fairly distinct market for themselves and this would not include most of those around Los Angeles clearly are safe," said John Morton, president of Morton Research Inc., a newspaper consulting firm. "The papers that conceivably could be in danger are those that are under the umbrella of a larger, dominant daily like the Los Angeles Times."

For the six-month period ended Sept. 30, overall average weekday circulation fell by more than 100,000 for L.A.'s daily papers compared with the like-year earlier period, according to figures released last week by the Audit Bureau of Circulations. And while the bigger papers can handle the loss, it hits the small dailies hard.

A price increase from 25 to 50 cents by the Times, whose daily circulation approaches 1 million, is widely regarded as the impetus for both price increases at the local papers and the resulting decline in readership.

Strategic moves

The circulation drop even hit Copley Press Inc.'s Daily Breeze of Torrance, which did not raise its price. The paper's Monday-through-Saturday circulation fell nearly 7 percent, dropping to 79,883, ABC reported.

Circulation Director Charlie McManis attributed the decline to a recent shift in marketing strategy, which includes cutting back on short-term subscriptions and steep discounts to attract more loyal readers.

"We were constantly churning this short-term (subscriber) base and it was terribly expensive," he said. While it will take some time for the paper to make up the circulation loss, McManis said the revenue dip will be offset, to a certain extent, by savings on promotional costs.

Raising prices has a more significant impact in competitive markets like L.A. because readers have so many other options available to them, said John Murray of the Newspaper Association of America, a nonprofit group that represents some 2,000 publications in the U.S. and Canada.

So, was it a good idea to raise prices this year?

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