For some local papers, circulation buoyed by double dipping

Appearances can be deceiving, and newspaper readers may be seeing red as previously optimistic numbers showing increasing newspaper circulation for some local dailies may not be reflecting the truth.

Though some local papers reported staggering increases in readership, these figures are inflated, according to a recent review by the Associated Press. In April, the Audit Bureau of Circulations changed the standards it used to define readership, deciding to include subscribers to electronic editions of the papers in its new figures. The new criterion allows newspapers selling print-edition-e-edition packages to count their subscribers twice. Sounds like the Internal Revenue Service’s new standard for income reporting on its Form 990, which stipulates double counting for deferred compensation. No wonder college presidents are getting so much flak. The ABC also reduced the threshold for paying subscribers — now, subscribers spending a penny for any type of edition are counted in the circulation figures.

Last month, the ABC released its latest data for newspaper circulation, reporting an abysmal 10.6-percent decline in readership over the previous April-September period. Of the 379 papers who submitted figures to the ABC, 59 reported they had at least 5,000 e-edition subscribers, according to the AP review.

The AP highlights local papers such as The Detroit News that have reduced their home delivery to three days a week and are offering e-editions instead. Other papers are inadvertently boosting their numbers by aggressively promoting e-editions at reduced fare, according to the AP article. The story also has a whole section on the Las Vegas Review-Journal, which posted a 6.6-percent circulation increase, mostly because the paper can now count all subscribers to their 50-cent e-edition in their readership numbers. Apparently, the 10.6-percent readership decline wasn’t depressing enough — the AP had to make sure everyone knew it could have been worse. We know you just experienced a rampant round of layoffs, but come on, AP, leave us some hope!

Despite the revelation, there is an upside to these new ABC standards: papers can now enthusiastically report increased circulation because no one is reading print.

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