After doubling their newsstand price and cutting back outlying circulation, Seattle's two daily newspapers posted continuing circulation...

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After doubling their newsstand price and cutting back outlying circulation, Seattle’s two daily newspapers posted continuing circulation losses during the past six months.

The Seattle Times reported a daily circulation of 233,268, a decline of 1.7 percent, according to the semiannual accounting released yesterday by the Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC). That slightly outperformed the broader U.S. newspaper industry during the six months from October to the end of March, compared with the same period the year before.

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer saw circulation fall by 4 percent to 144,836.

Circulation for the papers’ combined Sunday edition fell 1.9 percent to 457,010.

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Nationwide, ABC reported circulation at 814 papers dropped by an average 1.9 percent during the period.

“Compared to what is going on with newspapers in the rest of the nation, we’re doing fairly well,” said Times spokeswoman Kerry Coughlin. She said the latest circulation results were “a little better than we anticipated.”

P-I Publisher Roger Oglesby blamed part of the circulation loss on the increase in newsstand and paper-box prices to 50 cents from 25 cents at the end of February. He also said the P-I’s circulation was affected by a cutback in distribution of both papers in the eastern half of the state this year.

“This is an industry problem, as well as our problem,” Oglesby said. “Those numbers don’t make any of us happy.”

The P-I’s circulation has continued to fall since both dailies began competing head to head in the morning five years ago. The drop has become a focal point in the long-running feud between The Seattle Times Co., publisher of The Times, and The Hearst Corp., publisher of the P-I.

Times officials contend the P-I’s dwindling circulation has jeopardized The Times’ financial health under the two papers’ joint-operating agreement (JOA). The papers maintain separate news and editorial staffs, but The Times handles the printing, distribution and marketing for both.

In 2003, after three years of losses under a JOA accounting formula, The Times invoked a provision in the JOA contract and demanded that Hearst open negotiations that could lead to an end of the agreement, a shutdown of the P-I, or both.

Hearst instead filed a lawsuit in King County Superior Court to block The Times. Part of the lawsuit is before the state Supreme Court, which is expected to rule later this year.

The circulation drop at Seattle’s papers mirrors similar slippage nationwide. Experts say the latest industrywide decline is one of the worst in recent years.

“The national numbers are telling us things are getting worse at a faster rate,” said John Morton, president of Morton Research, a Silver Spring, Md., newspaper-industry consulting firm. “You can define success in this industry these days as just holding your own.”

Oglesby said one bright spot has been unusually strong growth of the paper’s online traffic.

Coughlin also said that more people are reading The Times online, adding that many of them “are new to the paper.”

Although many papers have noted similar gains in online readers, newspapers around the country are still struggling to determine how to make the electronic readership produce profit.

Oglesby said Hearst and P-I officials have discussed charging online readers a fee. Currently, The Wall Street Journal is the only major paper charging readers to use its Web-based material.

Coughlin said The Times is following industry activity in online journalism but has no plans to charge for access to its Web site.

Bill Richards is a freelance writer hired on a special contract by The Seattle Times to cover events involving the joint-operating agreement with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. He can be reached at brichards@seattletimes.com.