Dumbing down the Chronicle = bigger circulation?

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The Chronicle gave itself a pat on the back this morning:

The Houston Chronicle’s daily circulation grew in the last six months, while Sunday circulation declined, the Audit Bureau of Circulations has reported.

And the Chronicle has moved up in the ranking of the country’s biggest newspapers.

“We’re now the nation’s seventh-largest daily metropolitan newspaper and the eighth-largest on Sunday,” said Chronicle President and Publisher Jack Sweeney. “Given the economic challenges we’ve faced this year, we’re not all that unhappy with the numbers.”

Sweeney cited recent improvements in the Chronicle as reasons for optimism. “It’s our commitment to strong news coverage, our easy-to-read format and our first redesign in more than 20 years that will attract younger readers going forward,” Sweeney said.

According to the ABC report, the Chronicle’s daily circulation increased an average of 1,767 copies — to 554,783. Sunday circulation declined by 9,822 — to 737,580.


John Sturm, president of the newspaper association, said of the figures, “We’re not wild about it because it shows a bit of a decrease again,” but he added that the declines were in line with recent trends. He also said publishers were finding ways to attract new readers despite new rules governing telemarketing such as the do-not-call lists.

Sweeney agreed. “The ways newspapers used to build home delivery have changed,” he said. “We have to come up with entirely new approaches to sell the newspaper.”

Yes, well, those new approaches didn’t actually include improving content or editorial decision-making. Nonetheless, Sweeney is putting the best possible spin on this, in light of the Chronicle‘s recent downsizing. And he’s careful to say the Chronicle is seventh-largest, among metropolitan papers. When the nation’s two biggest papers, the Wall Street Journal and USA Today, are added in, then the Chronicle is number nine. And that’s for weekday readership. Sunday’s numbers declined.

This whole circulation number thing is iffy, as the recent Enron-like scandal within the newspaper industry shows (and which the Chronicle has carefully avoided reporting on). The Audit Bureau of Circulations, the supposed watchdog of the industry, has come under fire itself for its, uh, oversight. Indeed a fast look at the guidelines for counting newspaper circulation shows many loopholes.

As long as a newspaper charges 25% of its basic price for a newspaper, that paper can be counted as circulation. Newspapers used in schools, generally paid for by sponsors, are counted as circulation. Newspapers at hotels, as long as some rules are followed, are counted as circulation. Newspapers “sold” at events, again following some guidelines, are counted as circulation. And, if a newspaper sells its product electronically, there are even guidelines for counting that! I don’t think the Chronicle is selling electronic subscriptions yet, but since I am a paying subscriber, I don’t know for sure. (Someone at blogHOUSTON has to make the supreme sacrifice and take the dead tree version so we don’t miss fabulous stuff like this.)

What is kind of interesting, and perhaps is a better indicator of where things really stand at the Chronicle, is the Sunday numbers decline. I don’t know about you, but for years the Sunday paper was what I looked forward to the most. All those ads and extras. In my mind, the Sunday paper is truly a subscriber paper, as opposed to the weekday paper which can be pawned off on schools, hotels, and businesses. Wonder what has changed?

Mr. Sweeney can happily tout his circulation standing, but trust me, he knows, just like many of us know, that newspapers are old media, that newspaper content is often suspect, and that newspaper circulation numbers are to be taken with a grain of salt. And no amount of spinning (or “easy-to-read” formatting) will change those perceptions.

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About Anne Linehan 2323 Articles
Anne Linehan is a co-founder of blogHOUSTON.