Circulation figures for Los Angeles County's daily newspapers declined in the six-month period ended Sept. 30, as the National Do Not Call Registry continued to cut into subscription sales.

Hardest hit was the Los Angeles Times, which saw its Monday-Saturday circulation decline to 902,164 from the six-month period ended March 31, a fall of more than 8 percent, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations.

The Times, owned by Chicago-based Tribune Co., was not alone.

Of the eight papers in region that reported figures to the ABC, four showed declines in daily circulation of more than 1 percent and three were within a percent of the figures reported in the earlier period. Only the Daily Breeze, in Torrance, posted a gain greater than 1 percent in bringing its Monday through Saturday total to 70,426.

Tony Traven, the Breeze's circulation director, said the paper drew back its sales efforts from outlying areas to focus on its core news coverage and distribution area of the South Bay and exploited alternatives to cold-calling.

"Before we had a more scattered approach," he said. "Last year we were really hurting, so we cut out the areas we really don't serve. We've also been focused more on door-to-door sales and sales inside stores and supermarkets, because of the do-not-call list."

John Murray, vice president of circulation marketing for the Newspaper Association of America, was upbeat about the soft numbers in light of the October 2003 implementation of the do-not-call list.

"Newspapers have been very reliant on telemarketing, so now you're seeing the first full year effect of that on circulation," he said. "We knew that was coming. This year, we had one in three newspapers that gained circulation, and there's been some relief. It means some newspapers are adapting to it."

The Audit Bureau reports 12-month circulation figures each spring based on its own audits of participating newspapers. The most recent, semi-annual numbers reflect unaudited publishers' submissions.

The hit taken by Tribune was not limited to the Times' weekday numbers. Its Sunday circulation of 1.3 million marked a 7.2 percent decrease from the previous six-month period and a 6.3 percent drop from the September 2003 report.

In an Oct. 28 earnings conference call, Jack Fuller, president of Tribune's publishing arm, blamed a subscription rate increase, an intentional reduction in third-party sales, and the registry, which levies fines on telemarketers that call homes that have signed up.

"To turn around the declines," Fuller said, "the newspaper has invested in a new database marketing system and increased its use of direct-mail programs, which are expected to improve retention."

The market's second-largest paper, MediaNews Group's Daily News of Los Angeles, had Monday to Saturday circulation of 178,404, up less than 1 percent from the prior period. Its Sunday circulation of 200,458 was off 0.04 percent from the earlier period.

MediaNews Group's three other papers in the market, the Long Beach Press Telegram, San Gabriel Valley Tribune and Pasadena Star News, also reported declining circulation.

The 3.3 percent drop from the March period at the San Gabriel paper was second only to the readership loss at the Times. The Press Telegram was down two-tenths of a percent and the Star News saw its circulation decline by 1.5 percent from the earlier period. MediaNews Group officials did not return calls.

The biggest head-to-head circulation battle playing out in the market was in the Spanish-language press, where La Opini & #243;n, the nation's largest Spanish-language daily, is facing Tribune's Hoy start-up.

Tribune launched an L.A. edition of Hoy, already publishing in New York and Chicago, and was almost immediately hit by a circulation scandal at the New York paper.

At the time of the launch, Hoy officials said they expected to release unaudited figures for the September period, but pulled back in light of the trouble at the other papers.

On Sept. 20, Hoy Publisher Digby Solomon Diez announced that the paper would not to release unaudited numbers for Los Angeles, saying the company was focusing "attention on resolving the circulation issues at the New York edition."

In the current period, La Opini & #243;n's daily circulation rose slightly to 124,990 from 124,692 a year earlier. In the six-month period ended March 31, La Opini & #243;n posted a 1.1 percent gain over the earlier six months.

Mary Zerafa, vice president of market development and new media, noted that La Opini & #243;n pulled back from home delivery sales efforts.

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