Newspapers need to stop lying to themselves — and to advertisers — about their circulation

There has been much hue and cry about the New York Times passing USA Today in circulation to become the second-largest newspaper in the United States, thanks in part to a boost from the NYT’s digital susbcription plan, which reportedly boosted circulation to almost 2 million daily readers. These numbers are notoriously dodgy, however — and if anything, they have gotten worse instead of better with the arrival of online measurement and new digital devices.

The real bottom line is that until newspapers start coming clean about their readership — both to themselves and to their advertisers — they are going to continue to miss the forest for the trees.

The latest circulation gains for the NYT and others came courtesy of the Alliance for Audited Media (formerly known as the Audit Bureau of Circulations), an industry group composed of advertising agencies and publishers. The group noted that the numbers are not really comparable to the previous year’s results for a number of reasons, including the fact that some newspapers have launched new subscription formats, stopped printing every day and so on.

Counting readers multiple times

As Edmund Lee at Bloomberg points out, the AAM survey — which is somewhat ironically locked behind a paywall — also allows publishers to count their readers multiple times, according to rules adopted recently by the group. In other words, newspapers can count someone who reads the newspaper in print, on the web and on their Kindle as three separate readers. But doesn’t this inflate their readership numbers unreasonably? It sure does. The bottom line is that no one really knows what the “real” readership numbers are for newspapers.

Some argue this has always been the case with newspapers, which is true: publishers have routinely engaged in all kinds of shady tricks to boost their circulation — including special discounts for bulk purchases by hotels and airlines and other giveaways, and even dumping large quantities into ravines or pulping them after printing. On top of that, many papers have inflated their readership numbers for years by claiming that each copy gets read by as many as five people, an estimate that borders on the ridiculous.

Newspapers need to come clean

This defence boils down to: “Newspapers have always done this, and no one believes these numbers anyway, so what difference does it make?” A pretty weak defense, you might argue — and you would be right.

The other line of defence is that online measurement is also chaotic and confusing at best, and that since websites can’t even agree on whose numbers are correct, why should newspapers be any different? It’s true that measurement of online traffic is murky, with providers like comScore often giving wildly inaccurate estimates when compared with a site’s internal numbers. But this is a little like saying newspapers don’t have to tell the truth because no one else does either.

If newspapers are competing with online publishers and digital-native content companies for both readers and advertising, which they clearly are, then they have to be better than their competition — being just as inaccurate is hardly helping their cause. And they should be spending a lot more time on trying to measure real engagement (repeat visits, time spent, etc.) than on simplistic and flawed vanity metrics like raw circulation numbers. That is a mug’s game.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Shutterstock / Donskarpo