Why USA Today’s huge growth in digital circulation isn’t what it seems

The Alliance for Audited Media released a new round of circulation figures today — a twice-yearly occasion for newspapers to write about themselves. In true Halloween spirit, a few of them published press releases disguised as staff reports, de-emphasizing evidence of dwindling print circulation in favor of stressing digital gains.

But USA Today stood out, boasting that it had snatched the top spot in national circulation back from The Wall Street Journal by reporting an inconceivable 67 percent increase in average Monday-Friday circulation.

Here’s the top of this morning’s story on the USA Today site:

USA TODAY regains national circulation lead

New rules include circulation on mobile phone and tablet apps.

The agency that tallies newspaper circulation figures used by advertisers has changed its methodology to account for the increasingly diverse array of digital distribution channels, making USA TODAY once again the national leader in total circulation.

USA TODAY’s five-weekday average circulation totaled 2.88 million for the six month period ending September, up from 1.71 million a year ago, according to the latest circulation report released Thursday by the Alliance for Audited Media.

The big jump was largely attributable to 1.48 million counted in the paper’s “digital nonreplica” category, which primarily refers to mobile and tablet apps.

Trouble is, that’s misleading.

The Alliance for Audited Media has tracked a wide range of content distribution methods, including smartphone and tablet apps, for years, according to Neal Lulofs, AAM executive vice president. There’s nothing new in this six-month reporting period allowing USA Today to report visits to its apps as part of its overall circulation number in a way it couldn’t have done before.

Some portion of USA Today’s whopping 1,690 percent increase in digital editions (from 86,307 readers in September 2012 to 1,545,364 in September 2013) can be attributed to the paper’s decision to start reporting app use in the category, USA Today president and publisher Larry Kramer acknowledged in a phone interview. He added he wasn’t sure why USA Today hadn’t reported app use before.

But Kramer said the drastically higher number is a result not only of working with AAM to better determine what type of readership can be counted, but also of overhauling USA Today’s stable of apps to meet readers on all their devices and loading them with exclusive USA Today content. “Had we counted these [app] numbers a year earlier, they would have been a lot lower,” he said.

The New York Times (1,206,214) and The Wall Street Journal (917,702) reported lower average Monday-Friday digital nonreplica circulation — essentially daily app use — than USA Today did (1,484,078) for the period ended Sept. 30. But it’s worth noting that USA Today’s apps are completely free, while the Times offers three free articles per day in its iPhone app before requiring a subscription and The Wall Street Journal offers a mix of free and subscriber-only stories.

As Poynter’s Rick Edmonds has pointed out, AAM cautions against comparisons from paper to paper in part because of how news organizations pick and choose what to report as the science of counting news circulation has grown increasingly complex. Ultimately, the audits exist for the benefit of advertisers, who are interested less in lump sums than in more granular details about a variety of subscribers.

But that doesn’t make for fun horse-race headlines.

Said Lulofs via phone: “It’s human nature to want to boil it down or simplify it to a single number for comparison purposes, but it’s a highly complex media environment today and that’s not how newspaper media are bought and sold today.”

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  • harryeagar

    Hmmm. I remember when I was at a Gannett paper how Neuharth screwed up the ABC to falsely claim USA Today was biggest. I see the tradition lives on.

  • SFMH57

    Thank you for the clarification on how they came up with those figures. Very important to know what we’re really talking about.