Just as positive are digits related to what's known as "churn," defined as the percentage of a paper's subscriber base that must be resold every year to maintain the same circulation, renewals included. In this category, the lower a number is, the better. According to DNA spokesman Jim Nolan, the industry churn average is 77.8 percent; the Post and the News are at approximately 52 percent. Most telling, though, are the results of a study done by Scarborough Research, a New York firm that analyzes markets to aid companies making advertising decisions. "At the peak, when the JOA kicked off, Scarborough showed that we had 1.4 million Sunday readers, give or take, and about 1.1 million readers in an average weekday," says Matt Baldwin, the DNA's director of market resources. "Those numbers haven't changed significantly. Sunday's still 1.4 million, and the daily is a touch under what it was."
The DBJ's Bryer questioned this conclusion in her May 3 piece: "No one at the DNA could explain how readership could remain unchanged while circulation is down." But in fact, there's an extremely logical explanation for this apparent contradiction, which DNA representatives are only now fully disclosing. Simply put, the circulation figures before the JOA, fueled by years of subscription deals in which papers were sold for a penny a day, were grossly inflated nonsense. Toward the end, roughly 40 percent of the total subscriber base at the dailies was heavily discounted, with thousands upon thousands of Denverites signing up just to get Sunday coupons. Other tactics that artificially pumped up circulation included dumping papers (a 2000 News memo asked its employees to watch out for Post peers doing so) and giving out freebies, whether people wanted them or not. One school employee reported that she ordered the Sunday News, only to have papers show up on several other days -- and when she called the News to try and stop them, editions started coming more frequently. Not surprisingly, it was common a few years ago to see papers piling up in doorways across the city like makeshift burial mounds.
Pre-JOA, daily reps dismissed such anecdotes as ridiculous overstatements. Today, MacDonald embraces them. "Consumers were saying, ŒFor a penny a day, sure I'll subscribe.' But that didn't necessarily translate into readership," he says. "Obviously, circulation will decline when it was stimulated by selling subscriptions for a penny a day. I mean, come on!"
Of course, it's MacDonald's job to make any circulation reports look good. But for the first time, he provides a way for determining in the future if the Post and the News are feeling the pinch. The Denver dailies need to remain "at or near the top of the household penetration number, both daily and Sunday," he says, as well as stay "in the top ten in circulation, excluding the national pubs, because that relates to us being considered for national advertising buys."
If the papers someday slip from these positions, though, betcha MacDonald will find some way to put a shine on the new numbers. When you spin, you win.