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?

Ron Wood, publisher of the San Gabriel Valley Newspaper Group, which includes the Pasadena Star-News, San Gabriel Valley Tribune and Whittier Daily News, said that the increases were long overdue and that local papers were simply waiting for the dominant player, the Times, to make the move. While a loss in circulation was expected, he claimed the numbers are on the rebound.

"What you have to do, over a period of time, is bring that public back that showed some price resistance," Wood said. "We're in a recovery mode."

Over the past few years, small dailies have been harder hit than larger newspapers, which have started to compete with them for local news coverage. And as the retail sector becomes dominated by large national chains seeking to reach the broadest market, advertising dollars are being driven to the largest-circulation papers.

So, how do smaller dailies compete?

"The thing that seems to work the best is very intense local coverage, the kind of stuff you won't find in the Los Angeles Times," Morton said. "If you provide something that people can't get anywhere else and it's of interest to (readers). Those that hang on are able to do that."

It's a strategy echoed by Bryce Nelson, a journalism professor at USC's Annenberg School for Communication.

With circulation down and significant competition from the Times, Nelson said smaller local newspapers should focus on improving editorial quality, rather than cutting employees.

"Unless people feel you're providing an important news outlet that's almost essential to them, they don't have much reason to subscribe," he said.

The price increases have been offset, in part, by the events of Sept. 11, when circulation jumped. But those gains will be smaller and shorter-lived than those seen at larger metropolitan dailies, such as the Times, which can offer readers greater coverage of national and international events.

The one area where a smaller newspaper can compete with a big city publication is in the Spanish-language market, especially in L.A.

La Opinion, which is half-owned by Times' parent Tribune Co., provided the one bright spot in an otherwise gloomy period for local papers. Circulation jumped nearly 9 percent, to 127,576 on weekdays. Sundays showed a similar increase.

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