I wonder how many groups are going to get mad at me over this one. Here goes.
OK, this headline appeared in my email yesterday from News & Tech, a highly respected newspaper industry publication:
The headline surprised me for a couple of reasons. First, News & Tech has been a
strong believer in the value of print over recent years, when the temptation for
many publications has been to promote the “print is dead” philosophy. News &
Tech’s Chuck Moozakis even wrote a column about the value of print in the
As I read the story, based on daily circulation for the 613 newspapers reporting
to the Audit Bureau of Circulations for its latest six-month report ending
Sept. 30, 2012, I was confused.
The first thing I noticed was that circulation held steady over the six months
since the previous report. Daily circulation was down 0.2 percent, while Sunday
circulation was up 0.6 percent.
But what kept drawing my focus was the headline:
Digital circ for U.S. papers soars
So I looked more closely. Digital circulation sits at 15.3 percent today. A year
ago, it was roughly 9.2 percent.
According to the story I was reading, “ABC said digital-only subscriptions are
on a sharp incline, with the organization reporting that digital circulation
now accounts for more than 15 percent of newspapers’ total circulation. That’s a
jump of almost 10 percent over year-ago figures, ABC said.”
The numbers confused me. I couldn’t figure out where the 10 percent increase
was. Being the stickler I am about such things, I decided to look for myself.
I went to ABC’s website and looked for myself. I found the numbers from six
months ago showing that digital circulation was 14.2 percent of total circulation
six months earlier. That means it increased from 14.2 to 15.3 percent in six months.
Still today, I read more headlines in newspapers around the world about how
digital circulation is soaring among U.S. newspapers.
Wanting to be sure of my facts, I contacted Susan Kantor, ABC’s director of
communications. She was very helpful and we looked at the numbers together.
Sure enough, I had my facts straight.
If I’m reading the numbers correctly, digital circulation rose from 9.2 to 14.2
percent in the previous six months, then went up from 14.2 percent to 15.3 percent in the most recent six month period.
So here’s my question. Wouldn’t the headline be more accurate if it were:
Digital circ increases take nosedive
Isn’t it funny what we can do with numbers? The truth is that over the most
recent six months, print circulation stayed relatively steady. No big gains, no
big losses. The percentage of circulation attributed to digital devices rose from 14
to 15 percent, a very slight increase.
My calculator (no, I didn’t really need a calculator for this one) tells me that at
this rate, digital circulation will be higher than print circulation in just 17 years.
Of course, if the decreases in the rate of digital circulation fi gures correlated
with the numbers for the past year, dropping from a 5 percent increase the fi rst
six months to a 1 percent increase in the most recent six months, it could take
thousands of years for digital circulation to reach 50 percent of total circulation.
Just to make sure I hadn’t confused the facts, I contacted David Anderson,
professor of mathematics at The University of Tennessee, where I serve on the
adjunct faculty in the College of Communication and Information. I’ve never
met Dr. Anderson, but I asked if he would look at these numbers with me and see if I was off base. He was quite helpful.
When I shared the numbers with him for the past year, then looked more closely at the differences between the fi rst six months and the last six months, he was surprised.
He said he thought print newspapers were almost gone, from what he’d read in the media. I explained that a lot of people think that from the stories they read.
Then I asked him, if the rate of digital circulation increase decreased in the
future at the same rate that it decreased between the last two ABC reports, if that
indicated that it could take thousands of years for digital circulation to overtake
While he didn’t think it would take that long, he did agree that the numbers from
the last two reports could correctly be used to infer that.
Thus the headline could just as easily read:
Print is king for next millennium
OK. Let’s get something straight. I’m not so naive that I think it will be thousands, or even hundreds, of years before most of us get our news using means other than print. But at the same time, we do a huge disservice to our readers and ourselves when we play with headlines like this.
- Here’s the story as I see it. Was there an increase in digital circulation over the past six months? Yes, from 14 to 15 percent of total circulation.
- Did print take a nosedive over the past six months? No, print held up just fine.
- Did daily newspaper circulation drop over the past six months? No, overall it held steady.
Perhaps this is the news we should be sharing with advertisers and readers.
Do I think News & Tech has given up on print newspapers? No way. Their history tells me N&T is a fi rm believer in print.
I just think it could have been a better headline.