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Herald Readership Numbers Mask Shrinking Circulation

Monday, November 12, 2012

 

The Boston Herald claimed that its print readership has increased 15 percent over the past year to almost 500,000, but circulation numbers tell a different story.

According to the Herald's Advertising and Market Research Manager Diane Chin, the paper's readership is currently 493,000. The number is based off data collected by Scarborough Research and commissioned by the Herald and the Boston Globe.

However, the Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC) reported that the weekday print circulation of the Herald was 93,636 in the reporting period ended on September 30, compared to 111,567 in 2011. Total weekday circulation, inducing digital and free copies, was 96,860, compared to 113,798 in the same period a year earlier.

Across town at the Boston Globe, weekday print circulation was 180,919 in the ABC's reporting period ending September 30, compared to 190,282 in 2011. Total weekday circulation, inducing digital and free copies, was 230,051, an increase from the 205,939 recorded in the same period last year.

Diverging Numbers

The numbers differ, said Deirdre McFarland, vice president of Marketing and Communications at Scarborough, because they measure two different things. The ABC measures the number of papers sold, and Scarborough's data reflects readership.

"While clearly related, circulation and readership don’t march in lock step," she said.

"Besides methodology, there could be a variety of reasons for the difference in numbers. For example, the survey periods won’t exactly match the circulation reporting periods or the circulation geography could differ from the survey geography."

The ABC calculates its circulation numbers based on reports from publishers on how many copies are sold, as well as audits performed by the ABC itself. Scarborough's readership data is collected through phone interviews and product booklet surveys.

The two measures also differ in that Scarborough's data is internal, having been commissioned and paid for by the Herald and Globe, whereas the ABC's research is publicly available.

Circulation vs. Readership

The debate over which metric, circulation or readership, is a more accurate measure of the size or health of a newspaper is not a new one.

"I don't know that that's ever really been settled," said Rick Edmonds, Media Business Analyst at the Poynter Institute.

Edmonds said that as circulation numbers began to decline, a number of people argued that home-delivered editions and sold copies did not present a complete picture of readership, with one paper being read by multiple individuals in a home or a copy in a laundromat or waiting room being looked over by several people throughout the day.

Readership numbers, such as Scarborough's, attempt to capture these pass-along circulations in their calculations.

"I don't necessarily see what the driver would be for an increase," Edmonds said. "I think it all is sort of illustrative of this thing getting more complex." 

At this point, Edmonds said, the goal for many papers is to have circulation revenues rising rather than circulation numbers rising, and he was not surprised that newspapers would be searching for the metric that would show the current state of their operations in the best light.

Alan D. Mutter, a new media consultant and member of the adjunct faculty of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, has previously written about the somewhat murky readership numbers from Scarborough, which count anyone who has read or looked at a local newspaper in the last week.

"The long-standing industry rule of thumb is that you get about 2.5 pass-along readers for every copy sold but, in an age when 50 percent of cellphones are smart phones, I have serious doubts that the number is a high today as it has been in the past." 

 

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