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U.S. Newspapers Struggle to Maintain Readership

There was a time when newspapers were as common on American breakfast tables as coffee and orange juice. Today, though, most Americans get their news from radio and television - and when they do read a paper, more and more of them are doing so online.

Circulation among 814 of America's largest newspapers dropped by nearly 2% during the 6 months between October 2004 and March 2005, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations, a non-profit group that tracks the number of paid newspaper subscriptions in the United States.

This comes as no surprise to Scott Althaus, who teaches Communications at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champagne. He says by this point, the story of the newspaper's decline in America is an old and familiar one. "From the middle of the 19th century up to the 1930s, the circulation of newspapers in American households had been on the rise," Professor Althaus says. "But that began dropping off through the 40s with the growth of radio. And then when television started coming into the scene in the 1950s, and particularly in the 1960s, the slope of that decline began to increase."

Newspaper circulation has continued to decline over the last 2 decades, even though radio and television are no longer "new" forms of media. That is because other forces are at work. The Internet is one of them. People who read the paper online are not counted in formal, circulation numbers, because they do not see many of the ads featured in printed editions of the paper - and advertising dollars are ultimately what circulation numbers are all about.

There is also the impact of a new federal anti-telemarketing law to be considered. Passed in 2003, it allows people to prohibit telemarketers from calling them, and John Murray, Vice President of Circulation Marketing for the Newspaper Association of America, says the law hit publishers hard. "Telemarketing is the most popular way of selling newspaper subscriptions," says Mr. Murray. "So it became more difficult for newspapers to sell subscriptions at the volume that they had in the past, and newspapers are busy changing their marketing strategies."

The key to those new marketing strategies, says John Murray, is convenience and accessibility - particularly when it comes to the elusive 18 to 35 year-old-age bracket, which traditionally does not read newspapers, but which advertisers are anxious to reach. To that end, newspapers have started to set up subscription tables in grocery stores and coffee houses. They have also resorted to some old-fashioned hawking, what Rube Delancy does every morning outside a subway station in lower Manhattan. "There are some days I give out 1,400, and there are some days I give out 900," Mr. Delancy says, as he greets commuters rising out of the depths of New York's transit system. "But the average is between 10 to 1,400."

The paper Rube Delancy passes out, Metro, has the added convenience of being free. It is one of a number of free dailies that have cropped up in American cities over the last 2 or 3 years. Featuring lots of entertainment news and abridged articles about domestic and international affairs, these dailies are deliberately aimed at younger readers.

Many are put out by the same companies that publish standard newspapers - such as Express, which was launched two years ago by the Washington Post Company. But John Murray cautions that traditional newspapers should not see these free dailies as a stepping stone to increased circulation. "These publishing companies who are producing these free dailies are recouping some of the readers that they have lost in their traditional newspaper," he says. "But I think it would be a mistake for newspapers to view it only with the goal in mind of switching them to their traditional model. Some may never switch."

Recognizing that possibility, more and more newspaper companies have begun adopting different business models - offering a number of media platforms in addition to the traditional newspaper. A classic example is the Chicago Tribune Company. In addition to the Chicago Tribune the company publishes 11 other local newspapers, in cities as far away as Los Angeles and New York. It also operates 27 local television stations in 22 cities.

Professor Scott Althaus of the University of Illinois says this cross-media ownership can be misleading - particularly in cities like Chicago, where the Tribune company owns the local paper and 2 seemingly separate TV news stations. "Unless you know the ownership structure," he says, "You wouldn't know that the editors of those 2 (TV) channels share common space in an editorial room. So they can just reach across the desk and alert one another to the big stories of the day."

The result, according to Scott Althaus, is that there is not always a lot of variety in the news. Nevertheless he - and many other media experts - believe that this sort of business consolidation is the future of news in America - and while no one predicts newspapers will become obsolete anytime soon, the fast-growing market for news and information does mean traditional newspapers will have to work much harder to keep their hold on American readers.