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ELECTION 2008: THE MEDIA

Extra! Extra! Newspaper sales soar

News racks run out of copies as readers buy the 'physical record of history' -- the election win by Barack Obama.

November 06, 2008|James Rainey | Rainey is a Times staff writer.

Apparently looking for something old to go with something new (Barack Obama) and something blue (a more Democratic Congress), the American people bought newspapers in huge numbers Wednesday, a day after the historic election of the nation's first black president.

From the nation's largest daily, USA Today, to its more modest broadsheets, newspapers expanded press runs to accommodate enormous sales. Some papers even sold special gift editions and framed front pages.

But news racks -- even if they were replenished with copies -- became barren in the blink of an eye as people scrambled to snag mementos for their memory books and mantelpieces. In Los Angeles, Miami and all points in between, people lined up to buy copies of their daily paper.

The Chicago Tribune sold framed front pages for as much as $99. A single copy of the New York Times is said to have sold on EBay for $249.99, and another copy of that paper drew more than 20 bids before the auction closed -- for $400.

One man bought 100 copies of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution at 75 cents apiece and immediately began selling them at a 25-cent markup.

"I think what this really says, at a huge moment in history, is that people want something to keep and to remember," said Julia Wallace, editor of the Journal-Constitution and the newspaper's online editorial operations. "A newspaper has a very historic, commemorative feel to it. More than anything, it's about having this to pass on to their children and grandchildren."

The Atlanta paper initially printed an additional 55,000 copies to supplement its weekday press run of 375,000. But heavy sales forced the paper to print 150,000 more copies to meet demand.

USA Today boosted by 500,000 its weekday press run of roughly 2 million. The Washington Post, the fourth-largest paper by circulation, planned to print 350,000 papers and then sell them for $1.50, triple the regular newsstand price.

The Los Angeles Times printed 107,000 papers in addition to its weekday press run of 750,000, and sold some at retail outlets because copies were being pilfered from newsstands. Meanwhile, a steady stream of customers came to the Times' headquarters in downtown L.A. to buy copies of the paper.

"For the past two years, our campaign team provided outstanding and insightful coverage," said Times Editor Russ Stanton, "and we are grateful that readers want to savor this moment in our nation's history."

Newspaper executives and employees enjoyed the surge of interest in their Wednesday print editions. The industry has been suffering as earnings from print readership and ad sales plummet, and online ad sales (which generate much slimmer profits) and readership soar.

"I think there is an authority and finality, a sort of last word that comes from the printed edition of the newspaper," said Steve Hills, president and general manager of Washington Post Media.

Those among the parade of customers who bought copies of the Los Angeles Times on Wednesday agreed.

"This is a physical record of history being made," said Robert de la Madrid, who had tried five different locations before finally landing copies of The Times at the paper's headquarters. "As soon as you close the computer screen, that image is gone. And you can't frame the Internet."

Chris Garcia, 28, who purchased five copies of The Times, said he tried to keep papers marking history.

"You can hold it in your hand," he said. "It's real."

Some readers of The Times and other papers bought dozens of copies for friends and relatives. A black woman near San Francisco City Hall held up a copy of the Chronicle, posing for a picture in front of a statue of Abraham Lincoln.

Even as interest in print editions soared, newspaper executives said their websites remained the key outlet for the majority of readers. Several papers reported their online editions were drawing record traffic, including the Washington Post, which topped its previous high of 15.2 million daily page views.

The Times recorded 8.3 million page views, slightly above the high reached during the Southern California wildfires last year, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution recorded 5 million page views.

Said the Journal-Constitution's Wallace: "There's an understanding that people want information in all sorts of ways."

--

james.rainey@latimes.com

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