Wednesday, November 26, 2008

N&O’s “smoke and mirrors” can’t hide circulation losses

I recently posted Raleigh N&O's print circulation drops.

One of the points I made was that the McClatchy Company’s Raleigh News & Observer doesn’t regularly report its print circulation numbers as provided by the Audit Bureau of Circulations.

Naturally, that makes it hard to systematically track and assess the N&O’s circulation, which in recent years has been declining both in actual numbers and as a percent of population in the N&O’s circulation area.

In this post, I want to give you a sample of the “smoke and mirrors” approach the N&O now takes to “reporting” its print circulation – the principal factor determining its revenue – followed by an example of how I try to get as accurate a picture as possible of what’s actually happening with N&O print circulation.

Let’s start with a portion of a March 30, 2008 post - N&O says it'll be "greater than ever - which began - -

A big part of the Raleigh News & Observer’s Q Section today is devoted to telling readers how great the N&O is now and how swiftly and smartly it’s moving to make the paper, in the words of executive editor for news John Drescher, even “greater than ever.”

N&O publisher Orage Quarles III, Drescher, editorial page editor Steve Ford, and other senior editors all have columns in the Q which beat the “better than ever” drum.


But instead of headlining the Q Section with the question:


the headline should have asked:


Let’s look at Drescher’s and Quarles’ columns. You already have links to them and I’ll provide links again at the post’s end. Now extracts from the columns in italics with my comments in plain.

First, from Drescher’s column titled “The N&O is winning new readers” - - -

More people are reading The N&O than ever.

In fact, depending on how you slice the numbers, our growth in readership is faster than the growth in population in the Triangle -- one of the fastest-growing areas in the country.


How can that be?

Aren't newspapers dying?

It's true that revenue is down for most of us.

But for many newspapers, including this one, readership is up.

When you add our paid print circulation to our online readership, more people than ever are reading The N&O. By far.

All Drescher has offered so far concerning circulation is “smoke and mirrors.”

He provides nothing that lets you compare N&O print circulation year-by-year, and nothing that lets you compare print circulation growth to population growth in the N&O’s circulation area.

Our future depends on our ability to sustain this growth -- and for advertisers to recognize that more people than ever are turning to The N&O for news, sports, business, features and commentary.

In the past decade, our Sunday print circulation has grown every year. Daily circulation has grown every year but one.

But that growth has been slow, especially since the rise of the Internet in the past five years. Our paid daily print circulation has plateaued at about 170,000.

Folks, you see what I mean about his not giving you figures which allow for meaningful assessment of print circulation growth itself and compared to population growth. …

End of portion of March 30, 2008 post.

Now in there amidst all the smoke and mirrors editor Drescher states the N&O’s “paid daily print circulation has plateaued at about 170,000.”

Since just before mentioning that he talked about the N&O’s Sunday print circulation which for some years has been above 200, 000, I think we’re safe to assume Drescher’s 170,000 number refers to what the Audit Bureau of Circulations refers to as daily (M-F) circulation.

In that case Drescher’s “about 170,000” print circulation number can be compared to the ABC report for the period Apr. 1 – Sept. 30, 2008 which reported a daily (M-F) print circulation for the N&O of 157,000. (See the ABC chart in this post. The ABC reports total numbers. I posted numbers rounded to the nearest thousand.)

Based on what editor Drescher reported on March 30 and what the ABC reported for the following six month period ending Sept. 30, 2008, the N&O’s daily (M-F) print circulation for that period fell about 13,000.

That’s a huge loss.

Who can’t understand why an editor might use “smoke and mirrors” to try to hide it?


Anonymous said...

You can lie to your readers and usually get away with it, especially if you print what you suspect they want to read, but when you lie to your advertisers, that can be a whole different thing, with very unpleasant consequences. Steve in New Mexico

Anonymous said...

As Steve in Mexico suggested, lying to one's advertisers is a whole different kettle of fish. What would be intersting to see is the revenue raised as a result of advertisement in the N&O - with actual numbers adjusted not for increased prices but the real numbers of advertisers and the amount that they are spending for placement in the paper. My guess is that in that number there is a whole different tale - and not one that the McClatchey group would want publicized.

Anonymous said...


N&O runs fraudulent ad:

From Quack Watch -- consumer protection, information

Newspaper ombudsman raps ad for "free" discount card.

Ted Vaden, Public Editor of the Raleigh, North Carolina News & Observer, has criticized the newspaper's advertising department for accepting a full-page ad headlined, "Cut off set for free Universal Health Card" that was published on November 18th. [Vaden T. 'Free health card' is confusing. News & Observer, Nov 23, 2008] The ad, which has run in other newspapers, claims that the Universal Health Card offers "affordable care provided by 561,000 doctors, dentists, pharmacists, and hospitals." Vaden noted:

**The card was not free, because there was an up-front $18 "registration fee" and, after 30 days, the cost would be $49 per month.
**Although a company telephone operator said that the University of North Carolina Hospital system participated, a UNC official said it did not and that the card sponsors had been notified of that fact.
**Several people have complained to the North Carolina Attorney General's office that they were falsely told that their doctors participated in the program.

Several other investigators have described similar misrepresentations:

**Powell J. BBB looking into newspaper healthcare plan advertisement, WAFF 48 News, Oct 10, 2008
**Universal Health Card -- Money for Nothing. Daughter Number Three Blog, Nov 19, 2008

Other issues of the Digest are accessible through For information about the National Council Against Health Fraud, see If you enjoy the newsletter, please recommend it to your friends.