Good Circulation News for Philly Papers?

Dig a little into the newspaper circulation numbers, and you’ll find reason for optimism.

Oh lordy. Look at that. There appears to be some good news—at long last—for Philadelphia’s two major daily newspapers.

Granted, that good news wasn’t easy to find when the Alliance for Audited Media released its latest circulation numbers on Tuesday: The numbers appeared mighty grim for the Inquirer and Daily News—a combined 5.7 percent circulation drop during the year ended March 30, nearly 20,000 Philadelphians apparently deciding to give up the newspaper habit. The Sunday edition news appeared even worse: A 7.7 percent decline during the year, a loss of 40,000 readers. In a failing industry, those numbers appeared to show Philadelphia newspapers failing faster, once again.

That’s the bad news. Here’s the good news: Circulation at the Inky and Daily News appears to be up over the last six months. While circulation is down from a year ago, the bottoming-out seems to have taken place during the first half of that year.

You won’t find those numbers in Tuesday’s report. Instead, you have to go back to the AAM’s September report and start comparing. Do that, and this is what you’ll find:

• In September, the average daily circulation of the newspapers and their digital editions combined was 296,427 issues a day. In March, that number was 306,831—an increase of 3.5 percent.

• In September, Sunday circulation stood at 468,559. In March, that number had risen slightly to 477,313—just under 1.9 percent.

• And to be clear, it was digital “circulation”—the combined strength of the newspapers apps and their “replica editions”—that appeared to carry the day. Digital readership grew from 43,224 in September to 67,958 in March, even as the Inky’s daily print readership declined from 193,729 to 184,827.

Some caveats: For a few years now, the Daily News has been published as “an edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer,” meaning their circulations are combined in the AAM report and somewhat difficult to suss out. What’s more, the public portions of the AAM report seems to change slightly every time it’s published, making it difficult for an armchair analyst to know if they’re properly comparing apples to apples, circulation-wise.

With that in mind, though, Tuesday’s report would appear to represent the first circulation gain for the combined newspapers in recent years.

Which raises a question: How the hell did that happen?

Three theories:

• The papers have bottomed out for now. Remember, in the report on September circulation numbers, Philly newspapers saw their average daily circulation decline more than 10 percent from the year before, an astonishing decline. It may have simply been impossible to keep losing 30,000 subscribers a year in this market.

Management and labor got on the same page. Yes, this six-month report encompasses a period of time in which Interstate General Media—the owners of the newspapers and Philly.com—threatened to “liquidate” the publications without a labor agreement. But the Newspaper Guild signed a new contract, a major grievance was resolved, and, well, when all the infighting is done you still have to put the newspaper out. Maybe the mere act of getting on with business helped. Then again, maybe not.

• The new digital strategy had an early payoff: Philly.com was redesigned before the new year struck; between that site and the new, subscription-only newspaper websites, it may be that digital natives are finding their way back to their hometown papers. Finally.

• Some combination of all the above, plus some other factors, plus luck. This seems likeliest. And the circulation rise could prove ephemeral, a blip on the overall decline of the newspapers. Let’s hope not, though.

It’s often tough to find reasons for optimism for Philly newspapers. It appears, though, the city’s journalists finally have a reason to celebrate. In another six months, the AAM will let us know if the newspapers are still on the right track, or if it’s time to come up with yet another plan to save daily journalism in Philadelphia.

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