USA Today’s circulation up 67 percent? Newspaper industry makes comparisons increasingly difficult

Alliance for Audited Media

Circulation in September 2013 rose at The New York Times, flattened at The Wall Street Journal and skyrocketed at USA Today, according to figures released Thursday by the Alliance for Audited Media. AAM is no longer releasing lists of the nation’s largest newspapers, citing “the change to comparative five-day averages” as more newspapers change their print publishing schedules. In fact, the new figures make many comparisons challenging.

Take USA Today, whose average Monday-Friday circulation rose an eye-popping 67 percent in September 2013, from 1,713,833 the year before to 2,876,586. Its print circulation, however, fell 19 percent year-over-year. USA Today’s averages include 1,545,364 digital replica and non-replica editions, up 1,690 percent from the 86,307 it counted in September 2012 (not to mention 14,357 branded editions).

The New York Times’ average Sunday circulation rose nearly 14 percent over the year before. Average Monday-Friday circulation rose nearly 18 percent, from 1,613,865 to 1,897,890. But print circulation fell 2 percent year-over-year on Sundays, and nearly 6 percent on weekdays.

The New York Times Co. Thursday reported it had 727,000 digital subscribers in the third quarter of 2013, up 28 percent over the same period the year before. Circulation revenue long ago passed advertising revenue at the New York Times Co. It was up nearly 5 percent in the third quarter and is up 6.5 percent for the first nine months of 2013. Advertising revenue is down by nearly the same percentage over the first three quarters.

The Wall Street Journal’s average Monday-Friday circulation was essentially flat, falling a little under 1 percent over the year before, from 2,293,798 to 2,273,767.

The Washington Post’s average Sunday circulation rose 19 percent, to 800,643. That increase includes 176,664 branded editions. As reported exhaustively in this blog, the Post stopped counting branded editions in 2012 while it audited Savings Now, its lawn-delivered total market coverage product.

Subtract those editions, and average Sunday circulation fell 7.5 percent at the Post — from 674,751 to 623,979 — and average weekday circulation fell nearly 7 percent, from 462,228 to 431,521.

The Orange County Register, which has placed great emphasis on its print edition, saw its total average Sunday circulation fall nearly 8 percent, from 387,547 in September 2012 to 356,785 in September 2013. Its average Sunday print circulation fell 9 percent, from 294,640 to 267,121. The Register previously counted its average weekday circulation from Monday through Friday and now counts Monday through Saturday, so a comparison of those figures year over year would be inaccurate. For September 2013, it reported average Monday through Saturday circulation of 162,894, including 150,506 print copies. Its Monday-Friday print figure for September 2012 was 160,578.

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 an email to Poynter, AAM Executive Vice President Neal Lulofs stressed that its data is “for the benefit of publishers and advertisers.” A five-day average “is no longer a meaningful metric for them in today’s complex multichannel, print/digital, paid/free, branded edition, bundled/paywalled, you-name-it environment,” he wrote. “That makes it tougher for media-beat reporters to cover, but frankly you guys (and me and my team) aren’t at the top of the board’s list of concerns and priorities when it comes to these decisions, as you might imagine.”

Newspaper media buys are “much more targeted and granular, specific to individual days, editions and ZIP codes (for the insert advertisers),” Lulofs writes, “To say nothing of the digital properties.”

AAM’s change “also signals a shift away from the notion that issuing twice-yearly total circulation numbers is what drives conversations between newspapers and their advertisers,” Lulofs writes, continuing:

Beginning in January newspapers above 25,000 will file quarterly circ data and, optionally, monthly digital usage data covering website traffic, app usage, and the like. The board is pushing for timelier data, more relevant data, across print and digital channels, housed in AAM’s database where it can be of most use. So we’re beginning to transition our Consolidated Media Reports to dynamic data in a database. Within a year or so, in fact, I think CMRs will replace traditional publisher’s statements.
All of our data remains consistent and comparable, line item by line item. But the value is in the individual elements not the sum — at least for our members’ purposes.

Having said all that, for some newspapers, we may struggle to answer the most basic of questions from reporters: What’s the circulation of xyz newspaper? Well …. for which day? In print? Online? Tablet or web? iPad or Kindle? Core circ or total with branded editions?

Oversimplification has not served our industry well,” wrote John P. Murray, Newspaper Association of America vice president of audience development, in a statement to members this week. Old-style reports, “such as AAM publisher’s 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.”

Earlier this year, NAA said it would stop releasing quarterly data on ad revenue.

Previously: New York Times passes USA Today in daily circulation

Correction: This post originally contained a math error: The Wall Street Journal’s total average circulation fell about .9 percent, not 4 percent.

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  • Lon Haenel

    When I entered this business in the ’90s, I just accepted the fact that newspapers reported number of paid copies. That made us cool and unique. Forget that broadcasters report total audience. I’ve never seen broadcast media reporting total number of radios or television sets in the market. They always talk about audience. Members of broadcast audience don’t pay a thing for the content they consume. 16 years later, newspapers are still around. Business is tougher. The ad media buying and selling industries have finally agreed, via AAM rule changes, to show newspaper media audience closer to what it is. The development of consolidated media rules, flexibility in report design, and inclusion of additional paid and verified digital units move newspaper media in a more modern, useful direction. My opinion, this is a positive change for the newspaper media industry.

  • abeaujon

    Hey Mike, thanks for the head’s up. I missed your comment but as you may imagine, did hear from someone at the Journal! Dumb error on my part. Thanks for the sharp eyes.


  • Poynter

    Thank you for drawing our attention to the error.

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  • jpres

    Okay then, we’ll just assume that print circulation is dropping every quarter at just about every newspaper in the country…
    Hey, no problem…..
    Nice spin job ………jeez