Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Wanking on Your Ranking

“Chronicle retains ranking,” reads the soul-of-wit-and-brevity headline tapped low and inside the business section of Tuesday’s rank-retaining Houston Chronicle, a choice bit of phrasing that sounds as if it were the tortured product of high-level consultations between the business and editorial sides of the newspaper.

As the close readers among you probably noticed, the sizzling headline did not quite capture the full scope of the story beneath, a one-source official press release that was mostly devoted to various canned explanations attributed to publisher Jack Sweeney for the 6 percent fall in the paper’s audited daily circulation (4 percent on Sundays) during the six months ending Sept. 30.

The Chronicle was hardly alone in its decline, as all of the nation’s 25 largest daily papers reported selling, giving away or tossing off the side of a speeding delivery truck significantly fewer copies over the same period, save for the New York Times, which registered a modest, as they say, 0.4 uptick. Yet the Chronicle’s drop was the fourth steepest, percentage-wise, although considerably less than the headfall suffered by its Hearst Corp. stablemate, the San Francisco Chronicle, which owned up to a circulation decline of more than 16 percent.

The Houston Chronicle headline writers, no doubt aware of the rising reader clamor for more “happy news,” did indeed dig down to locate the nearly obscured silver lining with the factually sound subject-verb-direct object combination “Chronicle retains ranking.” If the paper had not retained its ranking … well, that would have almost risen to the level of real news, since by our ’rithmetic it would have required a gain of about 22,000 daily papers over the previous year to surpass the sixth-ranked Chicago Tribune---that’s a larger numbers gain than reported by the NYT---or a loss of 140,000 or so to drop beneath the eighth place Boston Globe. (It’s all about the art of the possible, we guess.)

We’re not here this evening to offer our complex and turgid explanations for the continuing fall in newspaper circulation and/or readership---we’re available to do that in private, for $250 an hour, with shower and hot towels available---but we can’t let Mr. Sweeney’s sundry rationalizations of the numbers pass without comment. (And we’ll stipulate into the record here that the reporting of newspaper circulation has long been recognized as a notoriously slippery art, one that’s subject to easy manipulation, etc.)

According to Sweeney, the Chronicle's decline "was primarily due to a more conservative auditing posture by the Audit Bureau of Circulations,” which means, essentially, that because of circulation scandals at the Dallas Morning News and other papers, the ABC is now pressing for a more realistic and reliable accounting.
"We used to be able to collect and show proof of payment to ABC on overdue cacounts," Sweeney said. "Now if a subscriber is one day late with a payment over 90 days, the computer system automatically eliminates the address from the paid circulation averages."
We’re not even sure what that first sentence means. What the second sentence means, essentially, is that there will be no more graveyard vote emanating from the Chronicle precincts. Go three months without paying the electric company and pretty soon you’re reading your Chronicle in the dark. Go three months without paying on your credit card and you begin to develop a deep appreciation for the biblical injunction against usury. Go three months without paying the Chronicle and … you continued to get the paper! And were counted as paying subscriber!

Soaring fuel costs have also altered circulation strategies, Sweeney said. "We've pulled our distribution in closer to our core market by eliminating San Antonio, Dallas, far South Texas and parts of Louisiana."
We have no idea how many Chronicles were sold in those far-flung locales, but we'd bet the combined total was something less than the number of unsold editions abandoned daily on roadway medians by homeless paper hawkers, or the number of unread and unbundled Chronicles stacked up for instant recycling outside hundreds of schools in the area that are beneficiaries of the Newspapers in Education program (which we assume aren't counted in the circulation numbers, but then again we're kinda naive).

But don't worry about those audited numbers, because it's those highly dubious, hypothetical multipliers that really count:
Sweeney said overall readership, measured as paid circulation combined with the number of readers of each copy of the newspaper, remains strong."Over the past five years, our weekly cumulative readership has remained stable at over 1.9 million adults 18 and over," Sweeney said.
Here's how the San Francisco Chronicle, which mentioned its percentage drop in the headline over the Web version of its story, handled the same topic:
Newspapers have sought to blunt the significance of circulation drops by emphasizing a different number, called readership, that takes into account the fact that a single copy may be read by more than one person. But, Rick Colsky, who runs an agency in San Francisco that buys advertising space, said ad purchasers s still tend to rely on circulation "because the readership is too iffy."
Yeah, that's probably why the San Francisco Hearst property took such a hit: It's too honest!

(By the way, did you know that in addition to the newspaper, the Houston Chronicle "produces HoustonChronicle.com, a direct mail operation, and free publications such as La Voz and La Vibra, both in Spanish ... [and reaches] over six out of 10 adults in the Houston metro area each week." That's according to none other than Jack Sweeney, as said between gulps of Diet Pepsi while washing down a bag of "hot chips" from the Chronicle commissary.)

The Genius of Greg Hurst, Continued

“He’s certainly earned his stripes.”
--- Referring to a local veteran who was wounded in a roadside bombing in Iraq and has received a temporary donation of a wheelchair-accessible van. Hurst made his comment just as the Channel 11 camera provided a chilling close-up of the unsmiling vet’s scarred and misshapen head.

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