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News Blog

Fine Print: The Deseret News spins its circulation numbers

by Rachel Piper
- Posted // 2011-05-13 -

The Deseret News reported May 4 that its print product was on the upswing, “bucking a downward trend in newspaper circulation nationwide.” But instead, the D-News was bucking some other newspaper conventions—namely, fair and accurate reporting.

In the article, Deseret News President and CEO Clark Gilbert boasted, “We are pleased to have one of the top print circulation growth results in the country.” That growth didn’t happen, however, unless it was based on numbers that weren’t shared in the story. The Deseret News' total circulation rose .69 percent, but the gains were entirely on the digital side—meaning, the paid online e-edition of the daily paper. Overall, the D-News’ print circulation fell 2.79 percent.

The Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC), whose annual FAS-FAX audit was the basis for the report, examined paid print and digital subscriptions of newspapers nationwide over a six-month period ending March 31. The gains the Deseret News cites in its story—1.7 percent and .1 percent—refer, respectively, to the combined digital and print gains for weekday and Sunday circulations. Print alone clearly suffered on those days, falling 2.15 percent and 9.85 percent, but a boost in digital subscriptions was enough to leave the Deseret News with its slight overall gain. (Scroll to the bottom of the page for a copy of the report.)

City Weekly e-mailed and left messages for Clark Gilbert and other senior managers requesting an explanation of their claims about the print edition, but received no comment.

The Salt Lake Tribune released a story on May 3 about its own performance in the audit. While the figures in that report are accurate, the headline on the article, “Tribune print, online readership increases,” is misleading. Tribune print readership fell across the board at a similar rate to the Deseret News—as much as 9.67 percent for weekday publication (Monday-Friday). The Tribune’s digital readership rose—as much as 39.29 percent on Saturdays.

“A lot of our readers are migrating to the Web,” says Tribune Editor Nancy Conway. “We believe we have a pretty healthy print readership, too. Our goals are pretty clear—we want to increase traffic online, and continue keeping the core product strong.”

When the ABC included not just paid subscribers, but also casual readers, the Tribune landed among the top 25 growing papers in the country, while the Deseret News’ overall readership sagged. In total, the ABC stated the Trib’s total readership as 712,034—up 9.8 percent—and the D-News’ as 524,830—down 5 percent.

To determine the overall audience, ABC audited phone-survey samplings from Scarborough Research, says ABC communication manager Kammi Altig. This is the first year the organization has tried to determine the overall audience of newspapers, including both casual readers and subscribers.

Those surveyed were asked whether they had read a paper’s print edition in the past seven days or looked at its Website within the past 30 days. If a survey-taker had, he or she was counted as one person. This “gives you a picture of the audience as opposed to the [paid] circulation,” Altig says. Circulation numbers can overlook some readers, such as those who visit the Website but don’t have a digital subscription, or multiple members of the same household reading from one copy of the paper.

Not content with the picture painted by this analysis, the Deseret News reported that its in-house Web-traffic measurements—calculated by Omniture, an Adobe Internet analytics product—show a 39.2 percent year-over-year growth, with 2.5 million unique visitors in March 2011 alone.

“There’s a lot of debate about which is more accurate,” Altig says of Web analytics-based versus sampling methods of counting readers. Analytics that count “unique” views actually tracks the unique computers that access the Website, not necessarily the unique readers. Someone who looks at the Deseret News while at work and again at home, for example, will be counted as two unique readers.

Altig says that different advertisers value different methodologies. Some think surveys are more accurate, while others say that even if the same reader looks at the Website twice, it’s still two opportunities for that reader to see an ad.

While the two big-boy dailies were duking it out, the only paper out of the five audited in Utah [which included Provo’s Daily Herald, St. George’s The Spectrum, and northern Utah’s Standard-Examiner] to post substantial gains in paid circulation was the Standard-Examiner, which saw its Sunday subscriptions increase by 8.06 percent and its weekday subscriptions increase by 3.09 percent [editor’s note: the author’s husband works as a presentation editor at the Standard-Examiner]. Overall subscriptions rose from 186,145 in 2010 to 198,264 in 2011.

The Standard-Examiner also posted losses in print subscriptions—down 2.9 percent on Sundays and 6.7 percent on weekdays—and its relatively dramatic increase in circulation was thanks to gains in the Standard’s digital-edition readership, which grew a whopping 109.96 percent on Sundays and 61.5 percent on weekdays. Unlike the downtown dailies, the Standard-Examiner did not report on the results of the ABC audit.

“I think it’s disingenuous to make that a news story and assign a story to a reporter when you know the editor is over their shoulder spinning the story,” says Executive editor Andy Howell. “That’s what editor’s columns and publisher’s columns are for. You can spin it there instead of try to report it in a news format.”


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