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Denver Post's circulation article yet another exercise in spin

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"Post Pleased By Numbers," a Denver Post article about its latest circulation figures, is journalistically appalling -- and absolutely nothing new. Whereas the Rocky Mountain News' circulation reports were typically tough and unexpectedly evenhanded over the course of recent years, the Post's versions during the same period have been purely promotional -- more business-department hokum than good-business-reporter skepticism. And the latest, in which staffer Aldo Svaldi finds the positive side of a 78,530 Monday-through-Friday sales decline in a single year, represents a new low.

Svaldi writes that "The Denver Post retained 95 percent of the Rocky Mountain News' home-delivery subscribers and 70 percent of its single-copy newsstand sales in March, according to circulation numbers released Monday." He attempts to back up this assertion with the following passage:

The Post's daily circulation dropped 17.4 percent, while Sunday circulation was down 12.3 percent from the combined circulation of both papers in the March 2008 report.

But the previous year's report included free copies provided by third parties, duplicate daily circulation from readers who took both papers, and an early Sunday Post "bulldog" edition, all of which were eliminated. Those eliminated items accounted for 49,606 of the 78,530 reduction in daily circulation and more than 50,000 of the 73,791 loss in Sunday circulation, [Denver Newspaper Agency spokesman Jim] Nolan said.

If the line about "free copies provided by third parties" sounds familiar, it should. Here's an excerpt from an April 29, 2008 Svaldi article sporting the mondo-ironic headline "Circulation Stabilizes for Post, News:"

Weekday circulation counts at both papers were about 11.4 percent lower. The Post had a daily circulation of 254,059 in March 2007, and the News had a daily circulation of 253,834.

"The biggest reason for the decline is the elimination of third-party copies," DNA spokesman Jim Nolan said.

Third-party copies are mostly hotel distribution and advertiser-paid copies distributed free to selected nonsubscribers.

And here's a passage from an October 28, 2008 Svaldi offering more straightforwardly labeled "Post, News Report Drops in Circulation:"

The elimination of advertiser-sponsored copies accounted for more than 43,000 of the decline of nearly 55,000 on Sunday, said Bill Reynolds, senior vice president of circulation at the Denver Newspaper Agency, which oversees circulation and advertising operations at both newspapers. The removal of third-party copies was less of a factor on other days, he added.

Granted, some of Nolan's latest explanations are legitimate. Around 14,000 people -- me included -- subscribed to both the Rocky and the Post, and bulldog sales accounted for a smaller amount on the weekend; it had absolutely no impact on the Monday-through-Friday figures. But the third-party-sales excuse is way past its sell-by date, and the rest of the math is so fuzzy that it could co-star in a remake of Star Trek's tribbles episode.

Even if we accept the proposition that only 5 percent of Rocky subscribers stopped taking the Post (something that requires a major dose of gullibility), the drop-off took place over the course of a single month; the figures represent sales from February 28 to March 31. Presumably only a few Rocky subscriptions lapsed over those four weeks -- suggesting that most of the decline was caused by people who actively canceled home delivery. But thousands more subscriptions will end in the next six months -- a period that will be tracked in the next Audit Bureau of Circulations report, due in October. Whether those people resubscribe in big numbers will be much more telling, especially in the context of an economic downturn and a historical move away from print, which will probably lower circulation independent of the success of failure of the campaign to woo ex-Rocky loyalists.

Don't expect any of that to make future Post accounts about circulation, though. Even if the digits plummet another forty- or fifty-thousand, the paper will find a way to make its performance look like a triumph.

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