An eye on the Times-Picayune’s numbers

Some questions about what executives say are positive circulation trends

We’ll have a long story on the Times-Picayune next week, but Publisher Ricky Mathews and Editor Jim Amoss released some numbers in the last few weeks in order to tout the success of their new business model, which among other things cut daily print distribution to three days a week.

But there’s less there than meets the eye.

Poynter reports this from a conference the two top NOLA Media Group executives attended this week:

Mathews said average daily circulation grew about 1 percent from the third quarter of 2012 (before the print change) to the fourth quarter in 2012 (after the change). Average Sunday circulation is flat. It’s not a huge growth, but Mathews said the paper’s circulation had been tracking down four percent to seven percent the past few years.

The problem is seasonality. Quarter-to-quarter numbers are less helpful than year-over-year ones because of seasonal variations in sales (think Christmas for retailers). That’s why the latter is standard practice among public companies, and why it’s something to flag when executives tout the former.

It’s particularly so in this case since newspaper circulation is usually lower in the summer than it is the rest of the year. The real question is what circulation did in the fourth quarter compared to the same quarter a year earlier.

It’s hard to know, at least from Poynter’s reporting, what the “tracking down four percent to seven percent” part means. If that number is Picayune’s’s annual circulation trends, then it’s a pretty egregious apples-to-oranges comparison. It’s only meaningful if it’s the sequential (third quarter to fourth quarter) trend going back several years.

The paper is owned by Advance Publications, which is closely held and, unlike public companies, is not required to release full financial statements. This is, by definition, selective disclosure, and it doesn’t tell us much.

But we can get a rough idea of this effect by looking at the securities filings of a public newspaper company like McClatchy. In the last three years, McClatchy’s paid daily circulation has risen an average 4.9 percent from the third quarter to the fourth quarter, while Sunday rose an average 2.9 percent. This while year-over-year circulation, what actually matters, was declining an average 6.1 percent daily and 2.8 percent on Sundays.

You can see that Sunday circulation is slightly less seasonal than daily circulation, which matches up with Mathews’ numbers. And you can see how misleading it is to use sequential numbers instead of year-over-year ones.

But even year-over-year numbers wouldn’t quite be an an apples-to-apples comparison for the Picayune because of the changes done to its publishing schedule and because of the damage unleashed by those changes and others made by Advance, which is what I write about in the next issue of CJR.

As I’ve written before, you’d expect to see a modest increase in circulation—all other things being equal—because seven days of newsstand sales are now compressed into three. Therefore daily circulation would be up as fewer edition are sold into a market that remains the same.

That might help explain (along with lower Sunday seasonality) why daily circulation is up 1 percent while Sunday circulation, which industry-wide has held up better than daily circulation across the country, is flat. There were six days of daily papers, which are now squeezed into two days. But there was only one Sunday paper before and one Sunday paper now.

More important is the change in the company’s circulation tactics. The Picayune, I’ve learned, is aggressively discounting subscriptions now, a self-defeating practice (since revenue losses from price cuts aren’t generally made up by circulation gains) meant to quasi-artificially bolster ad rates that the paper’s former publisher Ashton Phelps ended years ago. And it has continued throwing papers to the many subscribers who have canceled their subscriptions, according to many people I’ve spoken to down there. It’s worth noting that The Advocate, the Baton Rouge paper that launched a daily New Orleans edition when the Picayune went to a three-day schedule, told me last month that it has a daily circulation now of 23,500. It’s hard to imagine that hasn’t come at least in part at the expense of the Picayune.

The print circulation numbers aren’t the only ones to look at skeptically. Rebecca Theim, a former Picayune reporter who started ThirtyDASHThirty last summer to help laid off Picayune employees, points out to me in an email that the Web traffic numbers Mathews announced don’t match up with ones Amoss published last month in advance of a 60 Minutes piece on the paper.

Amoss wrote that there 41 million visitors last year to, which works out to 3.4 million a month. But Mathews says, according to Poynter, that’s what the site got in 2011: had 3.4 million unique visitors a month in 2011. In 2012, it had 4.2 million.

I emailed both Amoss and Mathews yesterday for comment and will update if I hear back.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,