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Nov. 1, 2013, 2:12 p.m.
LINK: www.poynter.org  ➚   |   Posted by: Joshua Benton   |   November 1, 2013

Good piece at Poynter by Andrew Beaujon on the new U.S. newspaper circulation numbers released yesterday and the increasing silliness of digital circ totals.

Circulation in September 2013 rose at The New York Times, fell at The Wall Street Journal and skyrocketed at USA Today, according to figures released Thursday by the Alliance for Audited Media. AAM is no longer releasing lists of the nation’s largest newspapers, citing “the change to comparative five-day averages” as more newspapers change their print publishing schedules. In fact, the new figures make many comparisons challenging.

Take USA Today, whose average Monday-Friday circulation rose an eye-popping 67 percent in September 2013, from 1,713,833 the year before to 2,876,586. Its print circulation, however, fell 19 percent year-over-year. USA Today’s averages include 1,545,364 digital replica and non-replica editions, up 1,690 percent from the 86,307 it counted in September 2012 (not to mention 14,357 branded editions).

Sam Kirkland looks more deeply at the USA Today numbers and finds it’s a reporting change, not a real gain. (Meanwhile, USA Today’s circulation revenue fell in the most recent quarter.)

The last time AAM released an actual list of the highest circulation papers, in April, the Houston Chronicle had, through some unusual choices, ended up with the second biggest Sunday circulation in the country, despite being only ninth in print Sunday circulation, thanks to the appearance of 539,691 “branded editions print and digital.”

AAM wrote a blog post in May explaining that a paying print subscriber at a paywalled newspaper can actually count as two “subscriptions” if publishers provide proof that the subscriber activated their username and password for digital. And there’s no reason to stop at two: “each digital platform,” like an iPhone app, can count as its own sub too.

Back in 2010, we told you about the fuzziness of these digital circ numbers, which can be driven by misleading e-edition totals, freebie branded editions being counted as subs, or other numerical futzing. Separately, the Newspaper Association of America turned some heads this year when they suddenly discovered a few billion in unknown newspaper revenue.

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