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Another Grim Reminder of Newspapers' Woes

For anyone still in the dark or having forgotten what's going on in the newspaper business, the Audit Bureau of Circulations offered a sobering reminder this week with its latest report on paid subscriptions.

For the six months ending March 31, the newspaper industry as a whole saw a 3.2 percent drop in weekday circulation compared with the same period a year before. Sunday circulations dipped 4.5 percent.

*The New York Times*, which recently announced plans to eliminate 100 newsroom jobs, took a big hit with weekday subscriptions falling 3.85 percent and Sunday subscriptions down 9.2 percent. The august *Times* now counts its weekday circulation at 1.08 million; Sunday circulation was 1.48 million.

*The Wall Street Journal* and *USA Today* were among the prominent gainers, posting 0.3 percent and 0.27 percent respective increases.

The numbers of many of the country's largest dailies paint a pretty grim picture. For the few modest gainers peppered in, there are some midsize papers whose circulations are off 10 percent.

The other side of the coin, of course, is the traffic to the papers' Web properties. With the *Journal* a notable exception, most major papers have made the entire contents of their print editions available online.

Nielsen Net Ratings offers some data to quantify the rise of online newspaper readership.

In March, the number of unique visitors to *NYTimes.com*, the most popular newspaper site on the Web, rose 30 percent from the same month a year ago to 18.87 million. Average time on the site increased about three-and-a-half minutes.

Curiously, as the second-most-trafficked newspaper site, *USA Today* saw a slight year-over-year decline.

But in general, the numbers tell what by now is a familiar story: print subscriptions are down; Web traffic is up. But in the end, the papers are losing ground. They're a long way from hemorrhaging money like many of the mortgage lenders or airlines, but the once-fat profit margins are constricting as they transition into a leaner online, ad-based model.

Of course, carrying this trend out to the extreme, we see more papers following in the footsteps of the *Capital Times*, the venerable Madison, Wis., afternoon daily that recently announced it was shutting down the printing presses and recasting itself as a Web-only publication. About 20 of the paper's 60 or so jobs will be lost in the process.

It's a great (if a little sad) divining exercise these days to project out where the newspaper industry will be in 10, 20, 50 years. Some look for the pulpy-paper business to die away completely, predicting that the only newspapers in the future will be read from under display glass in a museum. Maybe so. I hope not.

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