April 12, 2007 | last updated May 26, 2012 4:32 am

State's Daily Papers See Subscribers Fleeing Fast | Readership levels stay high, putting Hartford near top of national list

The Norwalk Hour is the paper of the hour. At least when it comes to its near-immunity to the circulation drops plaguing daily newspapers in the rest of the Nutmeg State.

Several daily newspapers in Connecticut have recently been put into play: The Hartford Courant's parent company is being acquired by a real estate tycoon, the Norwich Bulletin was sold last week, the Stamford Advocate and Greenwich Time are being sold to the Gannett Co., and the Danbury-based News-Times was sold twice.

But while investors are snapping up newspaper publishers, the state's dailies are hemorrhaging subscribers. Since 2000, daily circulation has plummeted more than 14 percent. In just six years, Connecticut daily newspapers lost more than 106,000 subscribers.

Ominously, the process seems to be speeding up. Nearly a third of those subscribers dropped their papers in the last year alone.

The Hartford Courant, the state's flagship daily, has lost nearly 31,000 subscribers since 2000, about 15 percent of its circulation base. More than 11,000 of those have been shed since 2005.

Meanwhile, the Hour in Norwalk has lost fewer than 300 subscribers since the year 2000 —less than 2 percent of its circulation.

Four daily newspapers owned by the Journal Register Co. saw some of the worst circulation losses of the state's dailies. In that period, The New Britain Herald has lost nearly 6,100 subscribers, 35 percent of the circulation it had in 2000. The Torrington Register Citizen lost 3,800, The Bristol Press, 4,400, and the Middletown Press lost 2,600. Those declines represent circulation drops of 34 percent, 32 percent and 26 percent, respectively.

Worse Than The Nation

In all the state's big dailies have lost a combined 106,401 subscribers since 2000. Although it's no secret that newspaper circulation has declined in recent years, the size of the declines in some parts of Connecticut is staggering, compared with losses seen in other parts of the country.

Last year alone, Connecticut's daily newspapers averaged a 5 percent circulation drop, nearly double what the rest of the country saw in that period. The 770 U.S. newspapers that reported new data as of Sept. 30 saw decreases of about 2.8 percent on annual basis, according to the Newspaper Association of America.

Across the region, dailies are seeing similar declines, said Elaine Reiter, marketing director for the New England Press Association. "There are not huge, catastrophic changes, but we are seeing slightly lower circulation numbers this year," she said.

"A certain percentage of that circulation decline is what I call 'ego distribution,'" said S.W. "Sammy" Papert III, CEO of the Dallas-based consulting firm Belden Associates. "Publishers in many cases have made the decision that some of their previous distribution is not worthwhile, unprofitable and advertisers don't want it. So there are some declines that are internally driven."

Elizabeth Ellis, president and publisher of the Manchester Journal Inquirer, said, "the trend that we are seeing is what everyone has been talking about." The Journal Inquirer has lost about 5,600 readers since 2000, and about 2,200 of those since 2005.

"It makes it harder for you to be profitable because one of your sources of income declines," she said. "You just do the best you can to counteract negative things."

Another big culprit in circulation drops is the way papers are edited, Pappert said. Readers are increasingly frustrated by the types of news chosen by the editors, particularly at the larger Metropolitan dailies, which for years made their names as a regional newspaper. The Internet has partially changed that. And the desire to reexamine content selection has helped foster the mantra of "local, local, local."

Yet, last year, Journal Register Co. retooled its Bristol Press, New Britain Herald and Middletown Press newspapers into tabloid formats, and tried to change their editorial mix. A similar move had driven subscriber gains at a JRC newspaper in New York state. But the experiment seems to have failed in Connecticut. From 2005 to 2006, the Bristol Press's subscriber base shrunk 12.3 percent, the Herald's by 9 percent, and the Middletown Press by 8.6 percent.

The Norwich Bulletin, sold last week by Gannett Co. to Gatehouse Newspapers, lost more than 10 percent of its circulation between 2005 and 2006.

Hartford Readership High

Still, the steeper than average circulation drops seen in Connecticut belie the fact that the state continues to rank among the top 10 markets for newspapers nationwide in terms of readership.

The Hartford and New Haven designated market area, (DMA), has about 85 percent of adults reading a daily newspaper. That's the second-highest readership percentage among all DMAs in the nation, according to data compiled by Scarborough Research for the Newspaper Association of America. That puts Hartford ahead of Boston, Providence and New York — a fact that still makes the area attractive to national advertisers.

That significantly higher readership among Connecticut newspapers suggests that, although circulation may fall at a faster rate, the state's newspapers may be better equipped to handle that drop.

"It's just a great place for newspapers and I don't see a reason that will change dramatically," said John Murray, vice president of circulation and marketing at the Newspaper Association of America.

Hot Properties?

Although a number of the state's dailies have changed hands in the last year, its difficult to tell whether strong readership statistics attract buyers, or poor circulation statistics frighten owners.

The Danbury News-Times was sold twice in the last five months. Alabama-based Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. bought the newspaper in October, only to sell it last month to Denver-based MediaNews Group, in a deal published reports pegged at $75 million.

Since a year before its initial sale to CNHI, the News-Times circulation fell by more than 4 percent — about 1,300 subscribers. Its circulation declined since 2000 are on par with the rest of the state, a 17 percent drop, or about 5,600 subscribers.

Perhaps MediaNews can do a better job halting Danbury's circulation exodus, by borrowing whatever strategy it used with its other daily, The Connecticut Post in Bridgeport, which has lost circulation at a far slower rate than the Nutmeg State's other dailies — only about 5 percent since 2000.

Chicago-based Tribune Co. recently sold The Stamford Advocate and Greenwich Time, to Gannett Co., which publishes The Norwich Bulletin. Both of the Fairfield County newspapers have had circulation drops of about 17 percent since 2000.

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