Florida newspaper readers dwindle

The Times bucks the trend by gaining Sunday circulation.

By James Thorner
Published May 1, 2007

Florida leads the nation in percentage of residents over the age of 65, a demographic that's dominant among newspaper readers. So when newspaper circulation drops in the Sunshine State - as it did for 13 of the state's 16 largest daily papers - the industry's got a problem.

Over the past six months, circulation plunged most precipitously in southeast Florida, where the Miami Herald lost 10.2 percent of its Sunday circulation and the South Florida Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale shed about 9 percent of its daily circulation.

The St. Petersburg Times reversed the trend and strengthened its position as the state's biggest newspaper. Sunday circulation climbed by 8, 483 copies to an average of 430, 893. Though the Times' daily circulation edged down 1, 155, to 324, 899, it was the third best showing in the state.

"It's not easy to post circulation gains these days, but the Tampa Bay area remains a strong market, and we have maintained our steadfast commitment to local coverage and Florida topics, " Times publisher Marty Petty said.

The semiannual circulation numbers, released Monday by the Newspaper Association of America and comparing the six months ending March 2007 to the six months ending March 2006, was bad news overall for the 745 daily newspapers and 601 Sunday papers analyzed by the Audit Bureau of Circulations.

National daily circulation dropped 2.1 percent. Sunday circulation was down even more at 3.1 percent. The New York Times, Washington Post and Chicago Tribune all sold fewer papers, while USA Today, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post posted improvements.

For St. Petersburg Times executives, the Sunday circulation gain, coming in the face of competition from the Tampa Tribune, its cross-bay rival, was encouraging.

Sales of the Times picked up in Hillsborough and central Pasco counties. On Sunday, the Times sold 132, 219 more copies than the Tribune, whose Sunday circulation slipped by 11, 242 to 298, 674.

"We're making inroads in the back yard of our competitor, " said Jerry Hill, the Times' director of audience development.

In a statement, Tribune publisher Denise Palmer said her newspaper prefers to focus on readership rather than circulation. Readership, which includes multiple readers of the same printed copy, is almost always larger.

"Readership has remained steady on Sunday and experienced only a small daily loss despite our circulation declines, " Palmer said. The Tribune is owned by Media General in Richmond, Va.

The Times is unique among Florida's largest newspapers in being independently and locally owned by the Poynter Institute, a school for journalists. Its circulation doesn't include the free daily called tbt* Tampa Bay Times. About 365, 000 copies of the tabloid are distributed each week.

James Thorner can be reached at (813) 226-3313 or thorner@sptimes.com.