Nate Silver: Pulitzer-winning newspapers aren’t immune to circulation losses

FiveThirtyEight

A newspaper’s Pulitzer Prize count has very little effect on its circulation losses, Nate Silver found after a spin through some data:

Does that mean that newspapers might as well forget about quality as an economic strategy? That’s not what this data says. There is a relationship between Pulitzer Prizes and circulation (the correlation is .53 among the 50 newspapers listed here). It’s just that this relationship hasn’t changed much from 10 years ago. The vast majority of newspapers have seen their circulations decline; the ones that win a lot of Pulitzers have suffered about as much as the ones that don’t. You could spin this result as a negative for high-quality journalism — newspapers that win Pulitzers are doing no better at retaining their readers — or as a positive — almost all newspapers are struggling, but the ones that win Pulitzers continue to have more readers.

Silver looked at daily circulation figures, which led to some strangeness: The Times-Picayune dropped 100 percent by his count, for example, because it no longer publishes daily.

Increasingly, though, it’s nearly impossible to wrest any meaning from the circulation figures publishers report to the Alliance for Audited Media. The data are, as Silver might say, very, very noisy.

Some papers count average daily circulation as Monday through Friday. Some do Monday through Saturday. Others, like the Times-Picayune, break out circulation data by individual day. At any rate, Sunday is “by far the most valuable audience for advertisers,” Rick Edmonds wrote in 2012.

Here’s what I wrote last October about circulation in Louisiana in September 2013:

In Louisiana, home to one of the nation’s most consistently interesting newspapering ecosystems, the average Sunday circulation of The (New Orleans) Times-Picayune rose 12 percent, to 163,530. Its average print circulation on Sundays fell 10 percent, to 130,881. The Advocate of Baton Rouge, which has made a play for the New Orleans market, reports a 24 percent rise in average Sunday circulation, to 122,453, and a 42 percent rise in average weekday circulation, to 103,990. Both figures include about 22,000 digital editions. Average Sunday print circulation at the Advocate was up nearly 3 percent, to 100,046, and average weekday circulation was up nearly 19 percent, to 81,845.

In a memo to staff Nov. 1, Nola Media Group President and Publisher Ricky Mathews and Advance Central Services Louisiana General Manager Ray Massett took issue with my post, saying that because “those assertions include electronic data as well as print data, and because they give no geography-specific data, they draw a distorted picture both of the overall circulation and of what we know and don’t know about what’s happening in the New Orleans market.”

Complicating things further, AAM, which used to be known as the Audit Bureau of Circulations, has changed its rules about reporting data in recent years. It now counts branded editions — which could be Spanish language editions, or lawn-delivered products like The Washington Post’s Savings Now that caused what looked like a huge drop in the paper’s circulation one year. Its rules about digital editions mean “a single subscriber could be counted twice, three or four times if paying for access on several different devices,” Edmonds wrote.

“Oversimplification has not served our industry well,” Newspaper Association of America Vice President of Audience Development John P. Murray wrote in a statement last October. AAM’s publisher statements “worked in the past due to the belief that newspapers will fare well considering the offerings of their competitors,” Murray wrote. “Increasingly, this is no longer the case.”

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