As I've written before, the ability of newspaper circulation departments and publishers to spin good news from bad by deftly manipulating dodgy circulation numbers knows no bounds. And as things get ever more desperate in the newspaper business, the number cookers are getting ever more creative.
Witness this report from Michael Liedtke of the AP (oh, is he ever going to be unpopular with his wire service's members, and extra credit: that link goes to a Google News page!) about the latest example of creative accounting: double-counting readers of electronic editions who also happen to pay for the print copy. This turns out to be perfectly legal under the Audit Bureau of Circulations' conveniently flexible rules, even though it inflates circulation numbers.
If not for these rules, the industry's numbers would look even worse. Average weekday circulation at 379 U.S. newspapers fell 10.6 percent during the six months ending in September. That was the steepest decline ever recorded by the Audit Bureau of Circulations, the organization that verifies how many people are paying to read publications.
Yikes. Liedtke isn't the first to raise questions about the quality and veracity of the latest circulation numbers. The estimable Alan Mutter put up some red flags a few weeks ago, as well.
Publishers managed to make matters worse by taking unprecedented liberties with the way they tally the discount circulation that represents a significant percentage of the readership at many papers. ...
The consequence of the change in the discounting rule is that circulation figures are all over the map. …
The inconsistent circulation data is bound to not merely confound advertisers but also cut into the industry’s fragile credibility with them.
Of course, as Liedtke reports, nobody seems too upset that the numbers are getting less believable all the time. The papers are just playing by the rules set by the ABC, which gets steadily more pliable to keep its publisher customers happy. Nobody likes to hear bad news, after all. Or, in the case of newspaper circulation, really bad news.
It's not just print numbers that are getting fuzzy, either. Former WashingtonPost.com editor Jim Brady and others are tweeting up a storm tonight about murky online numbers, as well—which, as anybody who's ever worked with Web analytics knows, can be a black art—at best. "There are just as many games played with pageviews and unique visitors as newspapers play with circ," Jim tweets, and then asks: "Interesting Q for us Web-heads off the news about paper circ shadiness: Are we making the same mistake blindly chasing unique visitors?"
Interesting Q indeed. Fudging the numbers may make internal constituencies happy (and make bonuses attainable), but they'll bite you in the long run. Advertisers can count, too. And print newspapers already are paying the price for not delivering the results to advertisers they've long promised. Online stats should be more reliable. As in so many other things, news sites would best be served by not lapsing into bad counting habits inherited from the print side.