Wednesday, October 28, 2009

When up is really down

One of the conventions of business reporting is comparing current statistics on just about anything to year-ago numbers: company sales, local unemployment, radio listeners, newspaper readers.

The results tend to be more apples-to-apples since they're from the same periods of time. Comparing consecutive quarters, on the other hand, can produce a skewed picture.

Take fourth-quarter revenue for retailers, which is greatly influenced by the Thanksgiving-to-Christmas holiday shopping season. If you tried to compare sales in that generally robust quarter to those on either side -- the so-so third or usually-slow first -- you'd get a dramatically different picture than putting year-over-year results side by side.

It's that lesson from Business Writing 101 that needed some footnoting as the media this week reported on the latest six-month circulation numbers for U.S. daily newspapers.

The data were pretty dismal: down 10.6 percent weekdays and 7.4 percent Sundays, according to the trade publication Editor & Publisher. Of the 25 largest newspapers, reported the New York Times, only the Wall Street Journal, Denver Post and Seattle Times showed paid circulation gains Monday to Friday. Most of the others reported double-digit declines, including the San Francisco Chronicle at 25.8 percent and the Dallas Morning News and Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J., at 22.2 percent each.

A chart that accompanied the Times story in print put the gain at the Denver paper at 61.9 percent over 2008 and the Seattle paper at 32.6 percent. A single sentence in the story explained the increase: "Two major papers, The Denver Post and The Seattle Times, reported significant circulation gains after their main competitors, The Rocky Mountain News and The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, stopped publishing."

It was a case of year-over-year comparisons gone awry because of a material event in the interim.

Sure, paid circulation at the surviving papers in Denver and Seattle was higher from April to September than it had been in the year-ago six months. But that had more to do with the Post and Times taking over the subscriber lists of the Rocky Mountain News and the Post-Intelligencer, respectively, both of which were closed earlier this year.

(Only the New York Times produced a chart showing eye-popping percentage gains in circulation for Denver and Seattle; others listed only the 2009 number, offering no percent change.)

Nevertheless, the vice president of circulation and marketing at the Seattle Times crowed about his paper's numbers, calling the increase "amazing," according to a memo to employees posted by the Puget Sound Business Journal along with a story that gives context to the Audit Bureau of Circulations data.

It's the kind of reporting more in the media should have adopted.

Said the Puget Sound business weekly, "The Seattle Times’ average daily paid circulation at the end of September stood at 9 percent below the figure posted at the end of April. That’s when the Times got a big boost in circulation after the Seattle Post-Intelligencer stopped printing a daily newspaper in March."

Likewise, the weekly Denver Business Journal, offered this in-context observation: "The Denver Post Monday reported weekday sales numbers 15.8 percent lower than what the Denver daily and the now-defunct Rocky Mountain News jointly sold immediately before the Rocky's Feb. 27 shutdown."

In other words, while overall circulation may have been up at both papers, each was still losing customers: the Post was retaining about 80 percent of former News customers, the Times about 84 percent of P-I customers.

They were still bleeding, but not as badly as other dailies.

(Disclosure: The Puget Sound Business Journal and Denver Business Journal are part of a nationwide chain of weekly business papers. I worked for the chain in the 1990s.)

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