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Circulation fell at most of the largest U.S. newspapers compared with a year ago, despite new rules that give publishers more flexibility to boost their totals.

The figures released Tuesday, for the six months ending in March, mark the first time that newspapers have calculated circulation under the looser guidelines from the Audit Bureau of Circulations.

Among other things, the changes allow publishers to include free copies given to newspaper employees and local schools; before copies had to be bought to be counted. The changes also make it easier for newspapers to lump separate editions under different titles into one total.

Newspaper circulation has been falling as readers shift from the printed newspaper to free websites and mobile services. The electronic alternatives have become even more tempting as newspapers charge more for their print editions. Some of the falling circulation stemmed from publishers' decisions to shrink their delivery areas to save money.

Circulation is important because it affects advertising rates. Print advertising has long been the main source of revenue for newspapers, but it has been falling because of the uncertain economy and a shift by advertisers to free and cheaper options on the Internet.

Publishers are hoping the rule changes will help them sell more advertising by providing more insights into the different ways newspapers still reach readers.

"This fresh approach provides advertisers with more transparency and market data than ever before, delivering the very information they have identified as critical to making better buying decisions in today's environment," said John Sturm, CEO of the Newspaper Association of America, the industry's main trade group.

Advertisers had a say in the new circulation rules; their industry controls two-thirds of the seats on ABC's board.

Weekday circulation was lower than last year for all but seven of the 25 largest U.S. newspapers. According to ABC, none of those declines should have been triggered by the rule changes. If anything, ABC said, the new rules help increase circulation, so some totals might have been even lower without the changes.

Because of the changes, however, ABC didn't directly compare the latest circulation figures to the same period a year ago.

But that didn't stop the two largest daily newspapers, The Wall Street Journal and USA Today, from touting their gains - the Journal in a news release, and USA Today in a memo to staff. The Journal's weekday circulation averaged 2.12 million during the latest period, about 25,000 more copies than a year ago. USA Today's weekday circulation averaged 1.83 million, an increase of fewer than 2,500 copies.

The New York Times remains the largest Sunday newspaper. Its Sunday circulation averaged 1.34 million, down about 37,000 copies from a year ago. Neither the Journal nor USA Today publishes on Sundays. On weekdays, the Times is third, with about 920,000 copies, down about 34,000.

Besides the Journal and USA Today, the other large daily newspapers reporting weekday circulation increases were: the San Jose Mercury News in California, the Star Tribune of Minneapolis, the Chicago Sun-Times, The Dallas Morning News and the St. Petersburg Times in Florida.

The San Jose, Chicago, Dallas and St. Petersburg newspapers all took advantage of the rule that lets them more easily count regional and other "branded" editions.

For example, the Mercury News counts circulation from Contra Costa Times, The Oakland Tribune and other San Francisco Bay area newspapers that share content and the same owner, MediaNews Group. Although each edition has content tailored to its region, MediaNews groups them together and presents advertisers with the higher total. Other newspapers count editions tailored for commuters on a train and published under a separate brand. There are also editions in other languages included in some of the totals.

About 50 newspapers lumped separate editions together this way, according to ABC. For instance, The Mercury News' weekday circulation of nearly 578,000 primarily consisted of 370,000 copies under a different name.

Even before the rule changes, newspapers have been allowed to count digital sales in their circulation. With the exception of The Wall Street Journal, digital subscriptions generally represent a small part of the circulation. That's expected to change as more newspapers charge for access on websites and mobile devices such as Apple Inc.'s iPad.

The Journal's electronic circulation increased 22 percent from last year to nearly 505,000. With just 40,000 digital subscribers, USA Today had the largest print circulation at 1.79 million.

Source: The Associated Press