By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

For newspapers, a digital break from the bad news

It’s hard to know what to make of the latest numbers from the Audit Bureau of Circulations given that the New York Times gets credit for a paid-circulation boost of 73 percent. Yes, it makes sense to add print and digital subscriptions together. But some of the numbers reported on Tuesday are anomalies that won’t be repeated once digital subscriptions grow into maturity.

Still, good news is good news. Thanks to digital subscriptions, the Boston Globe registered a 2.5 percent circulation boost on Sundays (now 365,512) and a 2.9 percent increase on weekdays (225,482) — the paper’s first increases since 2004. Those numbers, though, do rely to some extent on favorable ABC rules when it comes to counting digital readership.

The Globe reports 18,000 digital subscriptions. ABC gives the Globe credit for about 33,000 digital readers. The difference is that the 18,000 figure counts Globe readers whose only subscription is digital. The higher ABC figure encompasses those whose subscriptions include some combination of print and digital — “engaged home delivery print subscribers who access at least once per week,” according to an email from Peter Doucette, the Globe’s executive director of circulation sales and marketing.

Boston Herald publisher Pat Purcell has talked about a paid-subscription model for his paper, and I’d imagine that talk is likely to increase after Tuesday. The Herald’s daily paid circulation fell by 12.3 percent, to 108,548; on Sundays it declined by 6.2 percent, to 81,925. In its own story today, the Herald emphasizes the popularity of its free website, traffic to which it claims is up 25 percent over the past year.

One point the Herald does make in its rather snippy account of the Globe’s numbers is that paid digital circulation simply isn’t as valuable to advertisers as paid print circulation. That’s true, and, if anything, the situation may be deteriorating. According to newspaper analyst Alan Mutter, the share of online advertising going to newspaper websites dropped to an all-time low in 2011.

What that means is the question of who will pay for journalism remains as vital as ever. The newspaper business is proving that at least some of its users are willing to pay for online news. Will there be enough of them to make a real difference — and will they be willing to pay enough to offset the continuing loss of advertising revenues?

Those are questions that will have to be answered. For now, we should all be glad that the issue is whether the new circulation numbers are as good as they seem. That’s a nice break from wondering if the bottom is about to fall out.

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  1. BP Myers

    Interesting to contrast these developments with Facebook’s upcoming IPO and this article in The Atlantic:

    I can’t imagine advertising on Facebook will be any more lucrative for advertisers than advertising online with newspapers.

    Perhaps a subscription model is in their future as well.

  2. L.K. Collins

    Well, I guess 2.9% increase is better than a 2.9% decrease.

    However, measured against where they were, that 2.9% is an appallingly miniscule increase against what they have lost.

    This piece is really just a sign of how willing pundits like Dan see things only from the narrow perspective of making a living in…or off of…the industry.

    As for the odd methods of counting, isn’t it a somewhat unseemly attempt to make lemons look like oranges and to convince the reader that lemon juice is sweet?

    This news is more neutral than it is positive, and it is a reminder that the industry is still groping its way through, hoping that it isn’t required to go through a triple bottom in the process.

  3. Mike Benedict

    Once again Dan, some of your readers mistake “paid circulation” with “circulation.” They’d like to pretend that this is proof consumers don’t view news as something worth paying for, when in fact, if anything, consumers are gobbling up (and paying for) more news than ever, just over a much wider foundation.

    The same model could be applied to telecommunications, if only said readers weren’t too dim to recognize it.

  4. L.K. Collins

    Mike is correct.

    But this is evidence that people are not overwhelmingly interested in paying for the the news that The Globe is offering.

  5. John F.J. Sullivan

    How is it possible that, even after three days, no one has trotted out the always scintillating “buggy whip” metaphor?

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