Yeah, Right

An analyst says the Web isn't hurting newspapers, all evidence to the contrary

Justin Wolfers makes a good point at the Freakonomics blog:

The Democrats will retain control of the House and the Senate. And I’m the only person in D.C. insightful enough to make this brave forecast…

If I’m right? Well you can bet that I’ll beat the drums loudly and tell everyone in sight that I called it. I’ll blog it all week. I’ll write an op-ed explaining my insights. I’ll go on to Jon Stewart’s show to explain the fine art of psephology. Hopefully you’ll be calling me the Nouriel Roubini of political punditry. I’ll go on to a new life of lucrative speaking engagements and big book advances, while I beat back my coterie of devoted followers.

And if I’m wrong? We both know there won’t be any real consequences. I’ll be sure to sell some clever story. You know, there was weather on election day (hot or cold, wet or dry — it all works!) and this messed with turnout. Or perhaps, This Time Was Different, and my excellent forecast was knocked off course by our first black president, by rising cellphone penetration or a candidate who may not be a witch.

That ought to help us understand why contrarianism runs amok in the press. It’s hard to stand out when there are 50,000 journalists or whatever. Say something against the grain, even if it’s baloney, and you’ll cut through the clutter and get your story and name out there. If you luck out and happen to be right, you look like something of a genius.

Which reminds me of an Observer story from a couple of weeks ago with this implausible headline and subhed:

We thought the internet was killing print. But it isn’t

There is no clear correlation between a rise in internet traffic and a fall in newspaper circulation. Some papers are growing in both formats, others are succeeding in neither, according to new research

Everything you thought you knew is wrong!

Sit there and think about that headline for, oh, about three seconds, and you’ll be able to see through it. But lots of smart people passed it on, though Paul Carr of TechCrunch called BS quickly.

The column, by Peter Preston, references a report by a newspaper analyst that argues there’s no evidence newspaper websites hurt newspapers’ print circulations.

But “in the UK at least, there is no such correlation”, reports the number-crunching analyst Jim Chisholm. “This is true at both a micro-level in terms of UK newspaper titles and groups and at a macro-level comparing national internet adoption with circulation performance. Indeed, the opposite case could be argued: that newspapers that do well on the web also do better in print… Understandably worried traditional journalists should know that the internet is not a threat.”

Correlation does not equal causation, but there’s an even deeper flaw in the logic:

If newspapers’ digital activities were affecting their circulations, as many editors continue to fear, then one would expect the success of their online activities would be reflected in the declines of their circulations.

Well, no. Not necessarily. The most successful papers are likely to pull Web readers from other lesser papers. That boosts their Web traffic disproportionately to their print circulation.

And Chisholm is looking at a single newspaper’s print circulation and its Web “circ” in isolation. That’s missing the forest for the trees. A print newspaper like, say, The Observer, is not only competing against other Sunday papers and its own free website, it’s competing with,, independent blogs, aggregators, etc. Chisholm knows this. He says it in his report.

A quick read through the report doesn’t exactly make you confident in its rigor:

The analysis shows that if the average newspaper could achieve “best-of-breed” performance on three measures, it would dramatically increase traffic.

You think? It’s the Lake Wobegon model: If all newspapers were above average, they would be better off.

You can dance around the point all you want, but U.K. print newspaper circulation fell by a quarter from 2007 to 2009. Some of that was because of the recession, but we’ve had deep downturns before that didn’t impact circulation nearly as much.

Where did all that circulation all go this time? Certainly, many dropped subscriptions because of the whole free news ecosystem. But it’s equally certain that many dropped subscriptions because of the whole “why buy the cow” thing. It’s common sense and it’s basic economics.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

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.