Digital media executive Richard Tofel made a splash last week with a brief but alarming post on Medium arguing that newspaper print circulation has fallen surprisingly low.

There was no irony intended, Tofel told me in an email exchange, in his headline choice: "The sky is falling on newspapers faster than you think." I gotta say, though, that while Tofel is right on several important points, there is more than a little Chicken Little at play too.

Most oddly, Tofel concedes in the post that 2013 audited numbers for "total print circulation" and 2015 "individually paid circulation" are not an "apples-to-apples comparison."  But he plows ahead with comparing them anyhow in a then-and-now listing of 25 of the nation's largest papers  — and doesn't bother to check how much differences in definition might account for a good share of the apparent declines.

Tofel is right that print circulation is falling — roughly 5 to 8 percent year-to-year during 2015 at public companies I've heard reporting the result in earnings calls.  And the current totals probably are much lower "than generally believed" by people like Tofel who left an executive job at the Wall Street Journal a decade ago to direct business operations at nonprofit ProPublica, (which has comparatively little advertising and measures its audience in free digital views).

About those differences: For USA TODAY, "individually paid" leaves out more than 600,000 copies paid for by hotels and other third parties. Plus, USA TODAY made a strategic decision several years ago to wind down coin-box and other single copy sales while making much of the content available in Gannett's  regional papers as a supplement section.

When "total print circulation" was the norm, the Tampa Bay Times could count 80,000-plus copies of its free-distribution tabloid, TBT. That circulation hasn't gone away, but it now falls in a different category.

Neal Lulofs, executive vice president of marketing and strategy for the Alliance for Audited Media, commented more generally on Tofel's analysis, "seems an odd premise…what people "believe" circulation levels are. Advertisers know exactly what they are via AAM data."

The proliferation of categories reflects the multiple products newspaper organizations now try to sell. Advertisers, well-represented on AAM's board, also care more about that detail than a total number.

In his latest analysis of the AAM results, John Murray, vice president of audience development at the Newspaper Association of America, counts a dozen distinct categories making up the total. Individually paid home delivery and single copy together are by far the largest — about 70 percent daily and 62 percent Sunday. But the others go into what he calls "a menu of choices for advertisers."

Earlier studies by Murray's I've reported on also paint a somewhat different picture from Tofel's:

  • Print circulation revenues are actually up the last several years, as publishers have chosen much higher prices, accepting some audience attrition. Profitability for circulation operations has increased even more thanks to less churn and a narrower delivery footprint.

 

  • While Tofel hypothesizes that "inertia" motivates the remaining print readers, I'd call it preference.  Unlike Tofel (I'm guessing) and me, more than 50 percent of print subscribers read local news only in print — disregarding a digital version that is available for free or a small upcharge.

 

  • While Tofel makes clear that he is discussing print, it seems grudging not to mention that 10 percent of paid newspaper audience is digital and the industry records 180 million monthly uniques, most of whom see the material for free.

All that said, Tofel is right on the important point that falling paid circulation pulls down the rates newspapers can charge for advertising. That contributes significantly to continuing year-to-year declines in print ad revenues, still roughly 10 percent.

In our email exchange, Tofel suggested, that "a day is coming soon...when the increasing inefficiency of declining print circ may actually force the industry" to phase out print and follow the audience to digital.

Given the healthy circulation revenue picture, I think that's five to 10 years away for most papers, but it could be, as Tofel suggests, "sooner than most people, including most industry observers, believe." In any case, the Sunday edition with its pre-printed inserts will be around even as organizations drop some or all weekday print copies.

In short, I think Tofel's numbers don't make a persuasive case for impending catastrophe, but, no doubt, newspaper print audiences have been hit by more than an acorn or two.

Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly said that ProPublica does not accept advertising.