Newspapers large and small are trying to put a positive spin on the latest, drooping circulation figures and with some justification.


The eight Los Angeles-area daily newspapers that report to the Audit Bureau of Circulation reported a 3.6 percent decline in weekday circulation to 1,393,546 in the six-month period ended Sept. 30. Sunday circulation fell 4.2 percent compared to the like period a year ago.


That came amid a national 2.6 percent decline in weekday circulation and a 3.1 percent decline in Sunday circulation, as readers increasingly turn to the Internet and other forms of new media.


But at least some of the drop represents a strategic decision by publishers over the last two audit periods to build regular paid circulation and shed deeply discounted subscriptions and promotions, such as third-party sales to major advertisers for delivery to non-subscribers.


"During the past six months we have renewed our focus on building individually paid copies that our advertisers have told us they value the most," Los Angeles Times Publisher Jeffrey M. Johnson said in a statement. "In addition, we have focused our acquisition efforts on building copies and readership toward the latter part of the week to mirror our readers' lifestyles and our advertisers' objectives."


The question is if it will matter. Weekday circulation at the Times fell 3.8 percent to 843,432, with the No. 2 Los Angeles Daily News down 5.1 percent to 169,379. Sunday circulation at the two largest dailies fell 3.5 percent and 2.6 percent, respectively.


Other losses ranged from a 1.2-percent drop in weekday circulation at the Long Beach Press-Telegram, to 95,816, to a 10.5 percent drop at the Pasadena Star-News, to 31,036.


Industry analyst Mike Groves, president of M.G. Strategic Research in Washington D.C., agreed that "advertisers would rather have people who are engaged with the newspaper product" meaning paid subscribers.


But continued losses still mean there are fewer eyeballs reading the pages and that eventually will mean lower ad revenues. And few expect the losses to stop.


"Given continued media fragmentation, including the growing use of the online medium, we have no reason to believe these declines will reverse themselves anytime soon," wrote Merrill Lynch analyst Lauren Rich Fine, who tracks Times' parent Tribune Co., in a note to investors. Fine, in fact, issued a report that raises the specter of Tribune shedding some of its newspaper properties, including the Times.


"The company is under pressure to start investing in higher growth, higher return areas and/or monetize some of its current assets," the Merrill Lynch report said.

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