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Black, White, and (Really) Red All Over?

Can it get any worse for newspapers? According to an Associated Press report, the average weekday circulation among our largest daily fishwraps fell 2.6% for the six-month period ending in September. Sunday circulation fell 3.1% over the same period.

It gets worse. The slide marks the continuance of a longstanding trend toward lower readership. But the losses are accelerating. From last September to March of this year, weekday circulation dropped by 1.9%, while Sunday deliveries were down 2.5%.

A colleague of mine wondered aloud yesterday whether the news meant the newspapers were just plain doomed. I wonder, too. While I can't imagine starting my day without last night's headlines in front of me, I've at least one neighbor who avoids the local paper like the plague. His view is apparently reaching epidemic proportions.

Fortunately, the national papers did better than most. For example, Gannett's (NYSE: GCI  ) USA Today fell less than 1%, while Dow Jones' (NYSE: DJ  ) The Wall Street Journal declined only 1.1%. And, despite reporting a weak quarter recently, New York Times Co.'s (NYSE: NYT  ) namesake actually grew circulation one-half of one percent.

All of the biggest losers, meanwhile, were regional. Take The San Francisco Chronicle, for example. Owned by privately held Hearst, the paper saw its readership decline a breathtaking 16.4%, in no small part because of a decision to cut unprofitable deliveries.

Still, what strikes me most is the Times data. If the Times is actually gaining readers yet still doing poorly, what does that say about the newspaper business overall, especially when Google (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) is siphoning ad revenue like a giant, cash-sucking vacuum? A lot, I'd say. At the least is what many purport to be a broader shift away from ink-stained newsprint to digital equivalents, which might well result in lower ad prices. And that can't be good.

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Fool contributor Tim Beyers still reads The Denver Post every morning. Really. Tim didn't own stock in any of the companies mentioned in this article at the time of publication. You can find out what's in his portfolio by checking Tim's Fool profile. The Motley Fool has an ironclad disclosure policy.

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