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Reading between the lines: recent newspaper circulation numbers show growth

On Tuesday, the Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC) released its circulation figures for newspapers. The results showed recent gains in total circulation for several newspapers, who in response touted their growth. 

The New York Times reported that for the six month period ending March 31, it saw its total print and digital circulation grow 73 percent for weekday papers and 50 percent for Sunday. Meanwhile, the Boston Globe also saw growth in circulation with daily circulation up 2.9 percent and Sunday circulation up 2.5 percent. It is apparently the first time the Globe has seen circulation growth since 2004. 

According to Media Bistro, the Los Angeles Times also saw a 1.9 percent increase in circulation from last year. Other papers that saw increases include the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, New York Daily News, San Jose Mercury News, New York Post, Washington Post, Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Tribune.

Ad Age has reported that increases are partly due to paywall strategies, which have helped newspapers recover from declines in paid-print circulation. For instance, much of the gains the New York Times have made are in the digital arena. “These averages include and reflect the daily usage of multiple digital platforms by subscribers,” the New York Times Company reported in a press release.  Both the Times and Boston Globe introduced paywalls last year, but the Los Angeles Times only started charging for access in March. So where is the growth coming from at the other papers?

In December, inVocus reported ABC had changed its guidelines taking into consideration newspapers’ digital circulation as well as print. This includes online replicas of newspapers, digital e-reader editions and other paid digital subscription materials. In a recent article, Poynter Institute analyst Rick Edmonds noted there are a variety of factors that have to be taken into account when reading the latest numbers, including Sunday inserts, which when requested by people in certain zip codes can be counted in the total circulation; and branded editions, which allow publishers to count local edition distributions under the umbrella of one parent newspaper. “What will not be apparent until more detailed publisher’s statements come out in roughly two months is whether papers are jumping on a liberal ABC rule allowing organizations to double- or triple-count subscribers if they pay for access to one or multiple digital platforms,” wrote Edmonds. 

When print numbers are actually whittled down, weekday sales of the nation’s 25 largest dailies’ print editions fell an average of 7.9 percent, reported Alan Mutter in Reflections of a Newsosaur. “Not a single one of the nation’s 25 largest newspapers gained weekday print circulation in the reporting period that ended in March,” he wrote. 

In reality, the gains newspapers made in circulation can’t really be measured against past years when factoring in the new guidelines and rules. As Edmonds noted, the truth is in the details.

–Katrina M. Mendolera

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