Counting readers: What’s happening in newspaper circulation, and what it means for community papers

(Editor’s note:  In this thinkpiece, Jerry Grotta, associate director of TCCJ, reacts to the news that the Audit Bureau of Circulations has changed the way newspaper circulation is counted, beginning Oct. 1. The changes include newspapers now being able to count subscribers more than once — a subscriber may be counted once for a print subscription, once for an e-reader subscription, etc. This also includes online, mobile and other subscriptions. Also, newspapers may include products published under a different name in their total average circulation.)

Several years ago I heard the following at a conference on newspaper circulation:

The owner of a newspaper was hiring a new publisher. He narrowed the candidates to three current employees — the advertising manager, the editor and the circulation manager. As a final step, the owner conducted a three-hour interview with each candidate. His final question was: “How much is two and two?”

The advertising manager answered: “Two and two is four. Never less, never more.” The publisher said, “Very precise.”

The editor said, “Well, two plus two is four. But two twos side-by-side is 22. And two divided by two is one.” The publisher said, “Very creative.”

The circulation director leaned toward the owner and whispered, “How much do you want them to be?”

And that sums up the history of newspaper circulation.

Here’s how Timothy Hughes reports on what John Campbell said about a competitor’s circulation:

The earliest comment on newspaper circulation in America was by publisher John Campbell in his Boston News-Letter of 1719. He notes that “… he cannot vend 300 at an impression, tho’ some ignorantly concludes he sells upwards of a thousand…”

Did newspapers really lie? Here is why the Audit Bureau of Circulations was formed in 1914:

For more than 90 years, the Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC) has served as the trusted industry standard in audited circulation figures. This commitment began at the turn of the century, a time when unscrupulous business practices dominated the publishing industry and made it difficult for advertisers and publishers to form effective partnerships.

As long as circulations were growing through the first half of the 20th century, newspapers were reaping big profits. However, the household penetration had been declining, from 100+ percent in the 1950s to about 30 percent today.

And then actual circulation began to decline. In just the past decade, weekday circulation has fallen 28.4 percent between 2000 and 2010, while Sunday circulation has declined 30.4 percent.


While television still dominates overall as a source of news, it has declined from more than 70 percent in 1991 to less than 60 percent in 2010.

Radio declined from 54 percent in 1991 to 34 percent in 2010.

And newspapers dropped from 55 percent in 1991 to 31 percent in 2010. That’s a 44 percent decline.

Where did all the viewers, listeners and readers go?

To the Internet.

Online as a news source was first measured in 2004, with 24 percent. In 2010, it has risen to 34 percent — or higher than newspapers and radio.

However, 44 percent get their news from some form of Web and mobile media, second only to television and 30 percent more than from newspapers.

So what are newspapers doing? Trying frantically to find new ways to measure circulation and readership, such as including hits on their websites, such as “requested” verified circulation, and “targeted” circulation (where people do not object to having newspaper products delivered to their homes).

How will this affect newspapers? For one thing, it will make “audited circulation” much more complicated. The overall effect on “circulation” numbers is still uncertain.

But one thing is certain. The old newspaper model is broken.

Nearly 40 years ago, Richard Maisel said in an article in Public Opinion Quarterly:

The (traditional) mass media are actually shrinking in size relative to the total economy.

And I wrote in an article in Journalism Quarterly in 1974:

If the newspaper is to survive in the decades ahead, it must do so on the basis of offering the consumer a product which fulfills the needs of the consumer.

We can see in the continued decline in the circulation and readership of major daily newspapers that the industry hasn’t done a very good job of producing a product “which fulfills the needs of the consumer.”

But how are community newspapers doing?

A whole lot better than the big dailies!

Here’s how the National Newspaper Association describes the situation:

Today, the distinguishing characteristic of a community newspaper is its commitment to serving the information needs of a particular community. The community is defined by the community’s members and a shared sense of belonging. A community may be geographic, political, social or religious. A community newspaper may be published once a week or daily. Some community newspapers exist only in cyberspace. Any newspaper that defines itself as committed to serving a particular community many be defined as a “community newspaper.”

Despite the emergence of new information technologies such as the Internet, community newspapers continue to play an important role in the Information Age. Over 150 million people are informed, educated and entertained by a community newspaper every week. Moreover, the value of community newspapers continues to grow as they seek new ways to serve their readers and strengthen their communities.

Why does the future look brighter for community newspapers? People are interested in community news, but television, radio stations, and large daily newspapers can’t give comprehensive coverage of every community in their markets.

Community newspapers can . . . if they:

  • Focus their coverage on the local community – who, what, where, when, why and how.
  • Offer people in the community a variety of well-designed sources for their local news and advertising from your newspaper (the printed version, a web version, etc.)
  • Talk to – and listen to – the people in the community. How do they feel about your newspaper? What do they like and dislike about it?

If you do not do this, somebody else will!