For the first time in the modern newspaper era, The Kansas City Star’s Sunday circulation has fallen below 300,000.
In all probability, Sunday circulation has not been below 300,000 since it crested that number, perhaps around 1950 or earlier.
According to the most recent report, issued Monday, by the Audit Bureau of Circulations, The Star’s Sunday circulation fell to 290,302 for the April-September reporting period.
That represented a 5.7 percent dip from the previous year (when Sunday circulation stood at 307,974) and a 10.6 percent drop from 2008.
The Star has been battling desperately to prop up Sunday circulation. In recent years, for example, the company has been providing Sunday papers to subscribers of The Olathe News, which The Star bought several years ago. More recently — and more surprisingly — it began providing Sunday papers to subscribers of a competitor, The Examiner, which distributes in Independence and the fast-growing suburbs of Blue Springs and Grain Valley.
This coming Sunday, The Star is starting a special promotion — featuring 3-D images in parts of the paper. Each copy will contain special glasses.
The Star has good company in falling circulation, of course. The Audit Bureau showed that average weekday circulation at 635 newspapers declined 5 percent compared with 2009.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch was another major paper to fall beneath a long-time Sunday benchmark — 400,000. Its Sunday circulation fell 8.9 percent, from 401,425 to 365,589.
If there’s any good news in the overall report, it’s that circulation is not falling as fast as it was a few years ago.
The “decreasing decrease” in circulation mimics the trend in advertising, which also fell off a cliff a few years ago and is still trending downward, but not as sharply.
The Newspaper Association of America, a trade group, reported recently that newspaper advertising revenues were on track this year to hit a 25-year low of about $26.5 billion. That would be less than half the revenue ($49.4 billion) that newspaper advertising generated as recently as 2005.
The only truly hopeful sign for publishers is that online advertising has climbed almost 50 percent, to $1.5 billion, during the last five years.
Circulation, of course, is the horse that pulls the advertising cart. When circulation falls, it puts downward pressure on ad rates.
The fact that circulation and advertising losses are diminishing — and that online advertising is increasing — offer the only light at the end of what has turned into an extremely long tunnel for newspapers. Had circulation and advertising continued to drop the way they were a few years ago, a lot more newspaper companies would not be publishing print editions at this point.
Regarding The Star’s situation, I sent K.C. Star publisher Mark Zieman an e-mail Wednesday morning, seeking a comment, but I got no response.
A former Star executive told me a year or so ago that Zieman sees his overriding mission as saving the The Star’s print edition. If that is the case, his relative youth — he’s about 50 — could work against him.
The Star’s weekday and Saturday circulation also fell. Daily circulation was down 4.5 percent — to 206,441 — and Saturday circulation was off a whopping 7.8 percent.
As recently as 2000, The Star mounted a marketing campaign designed to propel weekday circulation above 300,000. My, how aspirations have changed in the last decade.
The ABC figures include electronic, as well as print, subscriptions. Electronic subscriptions now comprise 12 percent of The Star’s total weekday circulation.
According to ABC, a trade group, The Wall Street Journal has the highest average daily circulation, with slightly more than 2 million papers sold daily. USA Today is second, at 1.8 million, and The New York Times is third at 876,638.
Rounding out the top five were The Los Angeles Times (600,449) and The Washington Post (545,345).
The New York Times has the highest Sunday circulation, at 1.3 million. The Wall Street Journal and USA Today do not publish on Sunday.