It’s no secret that newspaper circulation is in long-term decline.

It’s also no secret, at least within the business, that newspaper auditing organizations have made a number of moves over the years to: (a) more accurately reflect how many people are buying newspapers (their version); or (b) cover the fact that the decline is continuing (a more commonsense view).

Today, on Twitter, a number of people are pointing to this AP story, Newspaper circulation may be worse than it looks.

The lede:

While U.S. newspapers are losing subscribers at a staggering rate, a few dailies stand out because their circulation is rising. But they aren’t necessarily selling more copies.

Here’s why: Since April 1, new auditing rules have made it easier for newspapers to count a reader as a paying customer.

In the words of Dan Gillmor, in his tweet about the story: “newspapers still playing games with circulation numbers — more slippery than ever, in fact.”

How slippery? While, for one thing, under the new ABC rules, newspapers can often count someone who has a bundled print-and-electronic-edition subscription as two subscribers, according to the AP report.

ABC is only one of the companies auditing circulation, and it doesn’t cover all newspapers. Here in Canada, in fact, the numbers most often touted by our daily newspapers come from NADBank, a newspaper-industry organization. And NADBank tracks a different measurement — readership.

Newspapers here have largely abandoned their reliance on circulation in making their pitch to advertisers, putting their faith in readership — the numbers established by telephone and in-person polling — instead. And the numbers that come out of that that they tout are not the stats for market penetration, or even the number of people who report reading a copy of the daily newspaper yesterday. Instead, they trumpeted the number of people who read a copy of the daily newspaper at least once in the last seven days.

That means newspaper can claim a seven-day readership of more than 70 per cent of those polled, even though the number of those polled who read a copy yesterday may be below 50 per cent (as might be the figure for market penetration).

There’s nothing wrong, of course, with newspapers using whatever statistical means possible to get an accurate picture of how they are received in the community. And it remains important, despite the body blows mass marketing has taken, that newspapers can sell a realistic picture of their mass market to advertisers.

But the key word is “accurate,” which hardly covers such things as double-counting subscribers who are eligible for both print and electronic version and other tricks, all in aid of trying to cover up the continuing decline.

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