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Denver Post guilty of fuzzy math when touting circulation gains?

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The morning after Denver Post execs detailed copy-editor layoffs at an employee meeting, the paper ballyhooed its rising circulation figures. But a local journalist crunched the numbers, and he thinks the news is worse than advertised due to "fuzzy math" that attempts to disguise a major decline in the print side of the operation.

Neither the Post press release reproduced in the blog item linked above nor an article by business writer Aldo Svladi breaks out print figures from the overall circulation numbers, which rose 10.6 percent on Sundays (to 595,363), 10 percent on Saturdays (to 428,570) and 13.6 during the rest of the week (to 401,120) over the previous six-month reporting period according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC), charged with tracking such info for the newspaper industry.

Separating the various platforms wasn't necessary until fairly recently, because the main ABC totals pertained to print. But in October 2010, Svaldi notes that official circulation counts began including "readers accessing digital versions of a newspaper, either as part of a subscription or via an application they have loaded onto a device." Also lumped in are "non-replica" digital readers who visit "at least once during a month via an application they have downloaded," Svaldi writes.

Whether readers who may have only popped onto the Post's website a single time over a thirty-day span should count as much as a daily print subscriber is debatable. But Bill Reynolds, the Post's senior vice president of circulation, tells Svaldi that the paper's Sunday circ is approximately 99,000 readers higher because of this accounting choice -- one that rescued newspapers from years of having to report print circulation declines.

Problem is, the lion's share of revenues generated by newspapers continue to come from print. A common expression in the journalism biz these days refers to "trading print dollars for digital dimes." In December, John Paton, CEO of Digital First Media, which oversees the Post, riffed on this phrase, declaring it time to "start stacking those dimes." But while that makes sense on some levels, it's also an acknowledgment that print readers remain more valuable to newspapers than do web surfers.

With that in mind, note that according to ABC, the Post's Sunday print circulation is 420,172 and its daily circulation is 240,200.

How's that stack up with the ABC report ending September 30, 2008 -- the last complete one before the Rocky Mountain News shut down in February 2009? Back then, writes the journalist we mentioned earlier, who asks to remain anonymous, the Post's Sunday circulation was 545,442. As such, print circulation has declined 125,270, or 23 percent, since then. And the totals are even more grim when applied to the daily numbers, which stood at 406,867 after combining the Post and Rocky sums. That means the latest print numbers are 166,667 copies lower, representing a stunning 41 percent slide in readers over three years-plus.

None of this is addressed in the press release or article -- and neither are the recent rash of staff trims at the Post, which include buyouts of Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Mike Keefe and eighteen others late last year, the March layoffs of columnists Mike Littwin and Penny Parker, among others, and farewells for two-thirds of the paper's copy editors, expected to be out by month's end.

"Why is the Post laying off so many people and buying them out and slashing staff?" asks the journalist. "I think you can point to the print numbers, because that's where the prime advertising revenue comes from, not digital."

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