Circulation at the nation's daily newspapers is falling faster than expected this year as readers continue to migrate to the Internet and papers narrow their distribution to cut costs.

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Circulation at the nation’s daily newspapers is falling faster than expected this year as readers continue to migrate to the Internet and papers narrow their distribution to cut costs.

Audit Bureau of Circulations figures released Monday show combined weekday circulation of all 507 papers that reported totals this year and last averaged 38,165,848 in the six months ended in September, 4.6 percent below 40,022,356 a year earlier.

Sunday circulation fell faster than daily — 4.8 percent, to 43,631,646 at the 571 papers with comparable totals.

In Seattle, circulation dropped even more precipitously. The Seattle Times saw average weekday circulation decline 7.7 percent to 198,741, while the Seattle Post-Intelligencer saw a 7.8 percent drop to 117,572.

Both papers said the results were no surprise, especially after such recent cutbacks as the elimination of nearly all bonus editions, a significant reduction in the Sunday hotel program, and a targeted drop in new subscription sales where customer retention tends to be low.

The Times handles circulation and other business functions for both papers under a joint-operating agreement (JOA). Each newspaper maintains competing news and editorial operations.

The Times also is responsible under the JOA for producing nearly all the Sunday paper, which bears both the P-I and Times mastheads. Sunday circulation dropped 9.1 percent to 382,332.

“We expected those declines because we made budget decisions earlier in the year that we knew would have an impact on our paid circulation results,” said Times spokeswoman Jill Mackie.

P-I Associate Publisher Ken Bunting added that a recent increase in both papers’ daily single-copy price from 50 cents to 75 cents also “may have affected it in a small way.”

Nationally, daily circulation at 16 of the 25 largest papers fell more than 5 percent.

Circulation has been dropping for decades, a trend hastened by readers shifting to the Internet. Newspapers also have lost advertising because of the Internet, and that decline accelerated this summer as the weak economy prompted advertisers to pull back on spending.

To boost revenue, many papers also have increased prices, causing small circulation drops.

This year’s sharpening drop also appears to result in part from the way papers are responding to losing ad revenue, said Rick Edmonds, media analyst at the journalism think tank Poynter Institute.

“Times are tough, and they are looking at everything that’s in their expense base,” he said. “Building new subscribers is an expensive proposition.”

Randy Bennett, senior vice president for business development at the Newspaper Association of America, said focusing on core readers is a move by papers to improve value for advertisers.

But Ken Doctor, media analyst with Outsell, said papers have been shrinking their territories for years without seeing such sharp circulation drops.

He blames the acceleration on reduced quality as papers drastically cut staff and other costs.

With the economic downturn, he said, readers are more likely than ever to drop their subscriptions because there is a free alternative — the Internet.

In a sign of hope, usage of newspaper Web sites grew nearly 16 percent in the third quarter, compared with last year, to an average of more than 68 million monthly unique visitors, the newspaper group said last week.

But online ad sales haven’t risen fast enough to offset the drop in print ads, which make up the bulk of a paper’s revenue.

In Seattle, the Times and P-I emphasized the paid circulation data does not capture the strength of their Web sites. “Our total audience is a very stable audience,” Mackie said.

Seattle Times business reporter Amy Martinez contributed to this report.