The fine print in the Times' good-news numbers

Circulation audit rules allow those receiving free or heavily discounted papers -- such as former P-I readers -- to be counted as paid subscribers.
Circulation audit rules allow those receiving free or heavily discounted papers -- such as former P-I readers -- to be counted as paid subscribers.

'ꀜSeattle Times daily circulation up sharply'ꀝ was the headline on the Times'ꀙ upbeat story after the latest six-month circulation figures were posted this week by an industry monitor, the Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC). And so it seemed, with the average paid daily circulation of the Times standing at 263,588, up from 198,737 in the same period last year.

Crosscut also reported the news, noting the numbers indicated a loss of about a third of the 90,000 former Seattle Post-Intelligencer subscribers who were automatically switched to the Times subscription rolls after the P-I stopped publishing in March. But wait, some former P-I subscribers and others let us know they were getting the daily Times delivered, even though they had not asked for the paper — or in some cases had told the Times they didn'ꀙt want it.

So we called ABC — which bills itself as 'ꀜthe gold standard of media audits'ꀝ — and asked how it arrives at its figures. The numbers, said ABC spokesman Neal Lulofs, come from something called a 'ꀜpublishers statement,'ꀝ which major U.S. newspapers file every six months with the Schaumburg, Ill., industry monitor. Lulofs said ABC uses the statements for its 'ꀜpaid circulation'ꀝ report. Those numbers mean real money to advertisers, who use them to negotiate ad rates with the papers, and are used by the papers themselves to underscore their financial health.

Under ABC rules the 'ꀜpaid subscriber'ꀝ definition covers a lot of ground. For example, all subscribers charged a penny or more for their paper can be included on the publisher'ꀙs statement as a full-fare reader. So readers who get short-term 'ꀜtickler rates'ꀝ to entice them to subscribe for longer periods can be counted on publishers statements. ABC changed that requirement April 1. Before that, newspaper publishers had to charge subscribers at least 25 percent of the actual subscription fee to include them on their statements.

Locally, the rules change means that subscribers to the combined Times/P-I Sunday paper before the P-I folded still could be included on the Times'ꀙ daily circulation rolls if the Times delivered its daily edition of the paper to them, whether they paid for it or not, because the Times could then spread the cost of the Sunday paper over the whole week.

'ꀜThere'ꀙs research to show the price paid is not necessarily a good indicator of reader intent,'ꀝ Lulofs said, trying to explain how not all 'ꀜpaid subscribers'ꀝ are really fully paid subscribers. 'ꀜIt is more the act of payment that demonstrates the quality of readership.'ꀝ

Another even broader ABC exception allows publishers to claim anyone as a paid subscriber for three months after they cancel their subscription or allow it to lapse. ABC calls these defectors 'ꀜsubscriptions served in arrears,'ꀝ Lulofs said, adding that three months is considered a grace period 'ꀜessentially to win back former subscribers.'ꀝ

What that means here is that If you subscribed to the P-I and your subscription ran out — or you canceled — after June 30, the Times could still carry you as its paid subscriber until Sept. 30, and include you on its publishers statement to ABC.

Of course the Times is not the only newspaper to boost circulation rolls with cut-rate subscribers and giveaways. The practice was so widespread in the industry that the ABC tightened its reporting rules for publishers statements this year. In the past, some papers, including Newsday, the Dallas Morning News and the Chicago Sun-Times had to refund millions of dollars to advertisers after they were accused of fraudulently padding circulation rolls with nonexistent subscribers.

Crosscut asked Lulofs whether those exceptions raised questions about the validity of the Times circulation numbers. 'ꀜIn the case of Seattle the old numbers and new numbers aren'ꀙt comparable,'ꀝ he said. 'ꀜThat'ꀙs why we put an asterisk on their numbers.'ꀝ

We also asked Times Executive Editor David Boardman and a Times spokeswoman for a more detailed explanation of the Times circulation numbers and whether they would be used to negotiate rates with advertisers. Boardman replied, saying he could not comment.


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