Is Circulation at the Denver Dailies Sliding Or Not?

Writers at the Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post appear to have very different ideas about newspaper circulation figures released on April 28 by the Audit Bureau of Circulations, an industry-supported monitoring organization. The Rocky's piece, "Denver Papers' Circulation Falls," penned by the prodigious David Milstead, puts the bad news up front, pointing out that "Denver's newspapers posted double-digit circulation declines during the six months ended in March, compared with the same period in the year before." In contrast, the Post's version, "Circulation Stabilizes For Post, News," penned by staffer Aldo Svaldi, portrays the glass as more than half full. "Circulation counts at The Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News have stabilized over the last six months," the report begins, while "visits to websites run by the Denver Newspaper Agency, which handles business operations for The Post and the News, increased 22 percent over the same period, according to Omniture Website Traffic Reports. Average weekly unique visitors were pegged at 1.1 million to the DNA websites, which include the websites of The Post and The News."

So do the latest digits constitute a positive or a negative development? Well, things could be worse -- but they could be a whole lot better, too.

Examples? On Sundays, the Post lost a staggering 100,0000-plus readers, from 704,169 to 600,026 -- 14.79 percent of total circulation. That's the biggest decrease among the top twenty-five largest circulation Sunday newspapers in the entire U.S. of A. Next closest was the Newark Star-Ledger, which dipped 12.29 percent, followed by The New York Times, down by 9.26 percent. (Editor & Publisher, an industry mag, has the whole list.) And while the Post and the Rocky once figured in the nation's top twenty-five on a daily basis, that's no longer the case. Both registered about 225,000 copies during the week -- over 40,000 copies shy of the newspaper currently clinging to the last slot on that roster, the Sacramento Bee. (Results for that grouping can be accessed here.)

Given these digits, how the hell could the Post put a chipper spin on the ABC survey? By looking at a six-month increment rather than a full year. By that measure, the Sunday Post is off by only about two hundred readers, and weekday circulation at the Post and the News is short by a similar amount. The Post's Svaldi describes the differences as "neglible." Moreover, the vast majority of the fall-off from a year ago is due to the decision to largely discontinue third-party sales -- papers funded at a discount by advertisers and delivered to non-subscribers, which were allowed, dubiously, to count as paid circulation. In a More Messages blog from last November, Dean Singleton, head of MediaNews Group, the conglomerate for which the Post serves as its flagship newspaper, predicted that this move would result in a "two-time hit" as far as circulation is concerned. The most recent data constitutes the second blow.

As a result, third-party sales won't be available for blaming when the next ABC report comes out six months from now. In this market, the best the dailies can hope for, most likely, is slow deterioration, as opposed to another big slide. -- Michael Roberts