Newspaper circulation in Southern California continued its precipitous decline in the six months ended March 31, dropping 4.4 percent and, with the exception of some local bright spots, paralleled a national trend.


The Los Angeles Times suffered the sharpest drop, losing 6.5 percent of its circulation and accounting for most of the overall decline. Excluding the Times, total circulation of Los Angeles County's other newspapers fell 0.9 percent from the same period last year, according to figures compiled by the Audit Bureau of Circulations.


The Los Angeles Daily News, the county's second-largest newspaper, gained a fraction of a percent in circulation, while weekday circulation of the Torrance-based Daily Breeze grew 2.7 percent. The Breeze also was the only Los Angeles County newspaper to gain in Sunday circulation.


Publisher Art Wilbe said the Daily Breeze which covers a wide swath of the South Bay and is owned by Copley Press Inc. deliberately shed unprofitable circulation in 2002 and 2003 and has bounced back.


The Breeze has backed away from offering deep discounts on four- to eight-week subscriptions, which juices up circulation but leads to cancellations when the trial offer expires, he said. In addition, the Daily Breeze relied less than many papers on third-party sales to institutions such as hotels, restaurants and nursing homes that pass along the copies free of charge to customers and residents, he said. They can add significantly to circulation numbers but are generally unprofitable.


"It's just a business decision," Wilbe said. "If you keep chasing people who are going to drop the paper after a few weeks, it's what we call rented circulation. We got out of that business toward more long-term circulation."


Wilbe said the Breeze also has worked to enhance its editorial product by focusing more heavily on local news.


Holding steady
The only other Los Angeles County newspaper to gain in weekday circulation was the Daily News, which is owned by MediaNews Group Inc. and anchors the Los Angeles Newspaper Group, which includes newspapers in Long Beach, the San Gabriel Valley and San Bernardino County.


Weekday circulation at the Daily News was up 0.1 percent although Sunday circulation was down 0.5 percent. Other Los Angeles Newspaper Group papers reported modest decreases in weekday and Sunday circulation.


Mark Stevens, the publisher of the Los Angeles Newspaper Group's second-largest paper, the Long Beach Press-Telegram, said the group is relying more on door-to-door sales to replace telemarketing curbed by the national "Do Not Call" law.


"It is a difficult proposition, but the company is committed to building circulation," he said.


Los Angeles' principal Spanish-language newspaper, La Opinion, also lost circulation.


Mary Zerafa, vice president of market development for La Opinion, said the paper's 2.4 percent decline largely resulted from a decision to discontinue its unprofitable home delivery. She said most readers continue to buy the paper from boxes.


The Los Angeles Times, owned by the Chicago-based Tribune Co., earlier this year launched a $10 million marketing campaign and is seeking to reduce subscriber turnover, said Jack Klunder, the Times' senior vice president in charge of circulation since April.


Klunder said the Times' efforts to cut back on third-party sales and deeply discounted circulation resulted in sharp short-term losses that will not continue this year: "Some of the cuts have been deliberate," he said.


The paper's weekday circulation now stands at 907,997.


A May 3 analysis by Merrill Lynch & Co. Inc. showed that the Times' largest losses 12.9 percent were among subscriptions for which customers paid 50 percent or more of the cover price.


And despite claims to the contrary, many newspaper companies including Tribune are continuing to boost circulation numbers through heavy discounts as they suffer the effects of the "Do Not Call" law and other factors beyond their control, the report stated. "Changing lifestyles, aging demographics and the Internet are likely causes for the declines," wrote analyst Lauren Rich Fine.


Nationally, daily newspaper circulation fell 1.9 percent for the six months ended March 31 and Sunday circulation dropped 2.5 percent.


Newspaper industry analyst John Morton said most of the exceptions to the trend were in suburban areas where population increases drove circulation growth. Many big-city dailies posted the largest decreases.


"I don't think anybody's found a magic bullet for making circulation go up absent market population growth," said Morton, president of Morton Research Inc., based in Silver Spring, Md.


Klunder acknowledged that changing demographics are a factor and may be more pronounced in Southern California, given the relatively high percentage of residents who read languages other than English.


"If it's a younger population moving into an area, they're maybe Internet users. It's more difficult now than it's ever been."

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