Both Seattle daily newspapers reported circulation increases Monday, but the growth came from a little-known quarter. Statistics released by the...

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Both Seattle daily newspapers reported circulation increases Monday, but the growth came from a little-known quarter.

Statistics released by the Audit Bureau of Circulations show that average paid weekday circulation at both The Seattle Times and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer would have declined during the six-month period that ended March 31, but for a big jump in the number of subscribers to “electronic editions” — online, page-by-page replicas of the print newspapers.

The Times’ overall weekday circulation was 220,863, up 1,141 copies — or 0.5 percent — from the same period a year earlier. Electronic-edition circulation, while only a small part of the total, grew exponentially, from 220 to 3,427.

The P-I’s total circulation grew by 1,547 — 1.2 percent — to 129,563. Electronic-edition subscriptions increased from 101 to 1,912.

Growth in electronic circulation wasn’t enough, however, to keep the combined Sunday paper from continuing its long slide. Its circulation dropped 14,403 — 3.4 percent — to 409,231.

The weekday gains at the Seattle papers ran counter to the industry as a whole. Among the 530 papers that reported year-over-year comparisons Monday, circulation was down 3.6 percent on average, The Associated Press reported.

Of the nation’s 20 largest dailies, only USA Today and The Wall Street Journal reported gains.

In Seattle, the P-I’s performance reversed a long trend. For years it has reported either smaller circulation increases or greater declines than The Times, which handles business functions for both papers under a 25-year-old joint operating agreement (JOA).

The newspapers maintain competing news operations.

Last year the newspapers’ owners settled a four-year legal dispute that revolved in part around allegations by The Hearst Corp., the P-I’s owner, that for years The Seattle Times Co. had not acted in the P-I’s best interest as the JOA contract requires.

As part of the settlement, The Times agreed to “allocate circulation sales resources” to ensure that the P-I gets a minimum percentage of new, solicited subscriptions for both papers in the greater Seattle area.

P-I Publisher Roger Oglesby said he didn’t know whether The Times’ new efforts on the P-I’s behalf were responsible for his paper’s circulation gains.

“There are more people buying and reading the P-I, and I think that’s a good thing,” he said. “Circulation is a complicated business. I don’t think there’s any reason to dig too deeply into it.”

Oglesby also wouldn’t discuss whether the new numbers validate Hearst’s past concerns about Times management of the JOA. “We’re doing our best to rebuild relationships,” he said. “I’m not going to reopen old wounds.”

In an e-mail, Times spokeswoman Corey Digiacinto attributed both papers’ circulation gains to three factors:

• The demise of the Kent-based King County Journal, which stopped publishing in January 2007.

• Improvements in customer retention.

• Continued growth in Newspapers in Education, a program that provides free newspapers to classrooms paid for by corporations and vacationing subscribers.

The Times’ post-settlement allocation of more subscriptions to the P-I had a “marginal impact,” she said.

The Times and P-I began offering electronic editions of the papers less than 18 months ago. Subscribers not only get exact facsimiles of each page in the newspaper but also can search up to two weeks of back issues for stories and advertisements, and archive content in customized folders, according to The Times’ Web site on the program.

Digiacinto said the Newspapers in Education program is responsible for a majority of the growth in electronic-edition circulation. “A number of teachers seem to prefer this method of delivery,” she said.

The electronic edition costs 99 cents per week, she said.

The Audit Bureau of Circulations also released information from Scarborough Research of New York on newspapers’ total audience, print and online. The data, based on projections from telephone surveys, show nearly 1.4 million adults in King and south Snohomish counties have either read The Times or P-I during the past week or visited one of their Web sites during the past 30 days.

Supplemental numbers provided by Scarborough show seattletimes.com reaches about 17 percent of local adults, seattlepi.com about 8 percent, during a typical week.

Eric Pryne: 206-464-2231 or epryne@seattletimes.com