Whoever wins the Philadelphia Newspaper War of 2013 will win control of a media empire — the Inquirer, Daily News and Philly.com — that by all accounts is stabilizing after years of decline. While print circulation has plummeted, overall circulation seems to be up. The papers are reportedly on the cusp of profitability. If the owners don’t blow millions of dollars on legal fees in the next few weeks and months, we’re told, happy days might almost be here again.
Getting a handle on just how much the condition of the papers have improved — or, perhaps, how much the decline has been slowed — can be tricky. For one thing, Interstate General Media, the owner of the three news entities, is privately held: It isn’t required to disclose — and will not provide — information on its finances to the public.
The other problem? The information that is public — specifically, circulation numbers provided through the Alliance for Audited Media — can be tough for outsiders to untangle.
So yes, we know that the Inquirer’s average weekday circulation at the end of September had increased dramatically from a year earlier, up from 296,427 to 310,002. (The number includes the Daily News's circulation.) And we know that the increase came entirely from so-called “digital circulation” — which grew from 43,224 digital editions a year ago to 84,765 this year. (More importantly, perhaps: That’s growth from 14.58 percent of total circulation to just more than 27 percent.)
What’s less apparent is how meaningful that growth is.
Breaking down the numbers
Why? First, let’s understand the digital editions themselves. They’re broken down into two types: “Replica editions” — basically, glorified PDFs of the paper — and “nonreplica” editions, which include the two new paywalled sites (Inquirer.com and PhillyDailyNews.com) as well as Philly.com’s mobile app for iPhone and iPad, and the similar (but probably much-less used) apps for both newspapers.
But wait: There’s more.
Mark Block, IGM’s vice president of external relations, graciously got together with his company’s circulation people to provide me with a further explanation of what the numbers mean. And here are two things he revealed that demonstrate the trickiness of relying on the digital circulation numbers:
• First, a number of people go straight to the newspapers’ paywalled websites each day using free “pass codes” that both papers push relentlessly through their social media sites. Everybody who enters Inquirer.com using the pass code is an increase in circulation, then — but not in paid circulation. Their value consists mostly in being an added set of eyeballs on those sites.
How big a percentage of the paywalled traffic is getting in free? Block didn’t say.
• Second: The cheapest subscription deal for both the Inquirer and Daily News these days is this: You get the print edition of a weekend paper — Saturday for the Daily News, Sunday for the Inquirer — accompanied by seven-day-a-week access to both the paywalled sites and the replica editions of those papers. This is paid circulation.
But if a user, for some reason, chose to use all three avenues to read their Inquirer during the course of a week, they would count as three units of circulation, not one. Again: We don’t know how many people are actually doing this.
“Circulation is counted independently for access to the print product, and independently for access to the digital product, regardless of the promotional package, since the user would need to access use of each product to be counted for circulation purposes,” Block said.
See how tricky this is?
All of this said, Block is quick to distinguish between “circulation” — which is basically a count of how many products are being seen and used — and “readership,” which measures more closely how many people are seeing and using their products. Readership is up, Block says … but he can’t provide details.
“We cannot release that internal research due to the competitiveness of our industry,” he said in an email.
Who gets credit?
So why is all of this important? Because the health of IGM — and the numbers underlying assertions about that health — is critical to the argument that each side in the Newspaper War is making for its own vision of ownership.
For Lewis Katz and Gerry Lenfest, who are suing to restore deposed Inquirer editor Bill Marimow, the circulation increase is evidence of his good work — and the undeservedness of his firing.
“No doubt, you saw last week’s circulation report, which stated that The Inquirer’s daily circulation was up by 8.9 percent,” Katz wrote in a letter to staff last week. “This is a major turnaround and one that I credit directly to Mr. Marimow and The Inquirer staff.
But the majority faction of owners led by George Norcross suggests improvements in circulation have less to do with Marimow’s editorship and more to do with a renewed nuts-and-bolts emphasis on getting the news product to customers, when and where they want it.
“While print publications continue to struggle everywhere, we have focused on rebuilding single issues sales for both papers and believe we have turned a corner, with subscriber and readership loss leveling off,” said a memo to staff, co-written by Norcross and William P. Hankowsky. “Since substantial changes were made at the end of last year, home delivery revenue has been increasing in a fairly substantial way. We are investing resources and believe we have the appropriate leadership to do what needs to be done: guaranteed delivery every day, on time, without interruption.”
On the other hand: The court hearing this Wednesday isn’t specifically about Bill Marimow’s job performance — and not about the opinion of the Teamsters, whose local chapter on Sunday endorsed the the Katz-Lenfest group in the ongoing battle — but about whether Publisher Robert C. Hall had the legal right to fire Marimow in the first place. Circulation and readership numbers might strengthen one side’s hand in the public arena, but not in the court where the battle will be largely decided.
The open question, though, is whether the papers and Philly.com are much of a prize to the winners. Apparently they are — but the owners are the only ones who will entirely know for sure.