Los Angeles Times circulation is continuing its precipitous decline and could dip below 900,000 on weekdays when figures are reported to a national auditing firm early next month, executives of the newspaper's owner, Tribune Co., said Friday.


Weekday circulation at California's largest newspaper declined by more than 6 percent between March 2004 and September 2004, dropping to an average of 902,164 copies in the six months ending Sept. 30, according to figures provided by the Times to the Audit Bureau of Circulations.


When the Times reports circulation for the six months ended March 31, it likely will be a similar decline in percentage terms, Tribune Publishing President Scott Smith said in an earnings conference call with analysts.


Smith and other Tribune executives declined to estimate the circulation, saying the ABC numbers would be released after May 1. Tribune spokesman Gary Weitman also declined to elaborate on Smith's statements.


Tribune executives said they were taking steps to slow or reverse the longstanding decline in circulation, which is at its lowest level since 1968. They said they would spend more than $10 million in marketing the newspaper this year, partially to offset the impact of the national "Do Not Call" law in curbing telemarketing of subscriptions.


Although newspaper circulation in most parts of the country has been declining for years, the Times losses are particularly steep. Competing papers, such as the Orange County Register and the Daily News of Los Angeles, have had mostly stagnant circulation.


"We're not pleased with the trends out there," Tribune Chairman Dennis FitzSimons said of the Los Angeles Times.


Smith said the Times intentionally dropped unprofitable circulation in remote areas and in papers bundled with La Opinion, a Spanish-language newspaper formerly owned by Tribune. Smith said the paper is less interested in juicing its numbers through short-term sales gimmicks than it is in winning and retaining loyal readers.


"We're in a transition there between a bunch of high-churn circulation and more sustainable circulation and readership," Smith said. "That is leading to these current, significant declines."


Despite the circulation decline, the Times is on track to meet Tribune profit goals this year, Smith told analysts. The paper's advertising revenue inched up about 2 percent in the first quarter of 2005, he said, and the paper has held the line on expenses by cutting positions.


Overall, Tribune Co. reported net income of $142.8 million (44 cents per diluted share) for the first quarter ended March 31, up from $118.6 million (35 cents) in the like period a year earlier. Tribune shares fell 45 cents, or 1.15 percent, to $38.55 in daily trading.


In addition to the Times, Tribune Co. owns several other newspapers including the Chicago Tribune and New York's Newsday, and 26 television stations including KLTA (Channel 5) in Los Angeles and the Chicago Cubs baseball team.

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