NEW YORK - The average number of monthly visitors to US newspaper websites rose by nearly a third in the first half of 2006, a study released today said, though print readership at some larger US newspapers fell.

The study, released by the Newspaper Association of America, underscores the internet's importance to papers beset by falling circulation and advertising revenue in their print editions.

The average number of unique visitors to online newspaper sites in the first half was more than 55.5 million a month, the study said. That compares with 42.2 million a year earlier.

Those numbers come from Nielsen//NetRatings, which tracks Web audience usage data.

"Newspaper websites have become a significant addition to the print product, and are driving large audience growth," said John Kimball, the association's chief marketing officer.

The number of page views at newspaper websites rose by about 52 per cent in the first half, the association added.

US newspaper publishers have been fighting to hold on to advertisers as many of them lose readers to other media, including the internet.

Key to the latest report is the finding that websites are bringing in more younger readers, the association said.

The Washington Post's website increased its audience reach among readers aged 25 to 34 by more than 60 per cent, the report said. Audience reach combines the average weekly print audience and the net 30-day website audience.

Overall, Newspaper websites helped drive a 15-per cent increase in the total newspaper audience for 25- to 34-year olds and a 10-per cent increase for 18- to 24-year olds, the association said.

It did not provide comparisons to the same period last year for total print newspaper readership. Readership numbers, which were provided by Scarborough Research, include circulation, shared copies and any other way that someone could end up reading a newspaper.

Print readership fell, according to a comparison of figures from the two periods conducted by Reuters.

The New York Times readership dropped 5.8 per cent to more than 4.7 million people, while the largest US paper, Gannett Co. Inc.'s USA Today, fell 3 per cent to about 6.9 million. The Wall Street Journal, owned by Dow Jones & Co. Inc., saw readership remain nearly the same at more than 5.1 million.

Papers owned by Tribune Co., which is exploring alternatives that could include a sale, also saw readership fall. The Chicago Tribune slid 12.4 per cent to 1.6 million and the Los Angeles Times dropped 9 per cent to 2.2 million.

- REUTERS