Digital vs. Print: The numbers deserve a closer look

November 29, 2012

By Kevin Slimp

I wonder how many groups are going to get mad at me over this one. Here goes.
OK, this headline appeared in my e-mail recently from News & Tech, a newspaper industry publication: Digital circ for U.S. papers soars.
Soars. Hmm.
The headline surprised me for a couple of reasons. First, News & Tech has been a strong believer in the value of print over recent years, when the temptation for many publications has been to promote the “print is dead” philosophy. News & Tech’s Chuck Moozakis even wrote a column about the value of print in the September/October edition.
As I read the story, based on daily circulation for the 613 newspapers reporting to the Audit Bureau of Circulations for its latest six-month report ending Sept. 30, 2012, I was confused.
The first thing I noticed was that circulation held steady over the six months since the previous report. Daily circulation was down 0.2 percent, while Sunday circulation was up 0.6 percent.
But what kept drawing my focus was the headline: Digital circ for U.S. papers soars.
So I looked more closely. Digital circulation sits at 15.3 percent today. A year ago, it was roughly 9.2 percent.
According to the story I was reading, “ABC said digital-only subscriptions are on a sharp incline, with the organization reporting that digital circulation now accounts for more than 15 percent of newspapers’ total circulation. That’s a jump of almost 10 percent from one-year-ago figures, ABC said.
The numbers confused me. I couldn’t figure out where the 10 percent increase was. Being the stickler I am about such things, I decided to look for myself.
I went to ABC’s website. I found the numbers from six months ago showing that digital circulation was 14.2 percent of total circulation six months earlier. That means it increased from 14.2 to 15.3 percent in six months.
Still today, I read more headlines in newspapers around the world about how digital circulation is soaring among U.S. newspapers.
Wanting to be sure of my facts, I contacted Susan Kantor, ABC’s director of communications. She was helpful and we looked at the numbers together. Sure enough, I had my facts straight.
If I’m reading the numbers correctly, digital circulation rose from 9.2 percent to 14.2 percent in the previous six months, then went up from 14.2 percent to 15.3 percent in the most recent six month period.
So here’s my question. Wouldn’t the headline be more accurate if it were: Digital circ increases take nosedive?
Isn’t it funny what we can do with numbers? The truth is that during the most recent six months, print circulation stayed relatively steady. No big gains, no big losses. The percentage of circulation attributed to digital devices rose from 14 percent to 15 percent, a slight increase.
My calculator (no, I didn’t really need a calculator for this one) tells me that at this rate, digital circulation will be higher than print circulation in just 17 years.
Of course, if the decreases in the rate of digital circulation figures correlated with the numbers for the past year, dropping from a 5 percent increase the first six months to a 1 percent increase in the most recent six months, it could take thousands of years for digital circulation to reach 50 percent of total circulation.
Just to make sure I hadn’t confused the facts, I contacted David Anderson, professor of mathematics at The University of Tennessee, where I serve on the adjunct faculty in the College of Communication and Information. I’ve never met Anderson, but I asked if he would look at these numbers with me and see if I was off base. He was quite helpful.
When I shared the numbers with him for the past year, then looked more closely at the differences between the first six months and the last six months, he was surprised. He said he thought print newspapers were almost gone, from what he’d read in the media. I explained that a lot of people think that from the stories they read.
Then I asked him, if the rate of digital circulation increase decreased in the future at the same rate that it decreased between the last two ABC reports, if that indicated that it could take thousands of years for digital circulation to overtake print circulation.
Although he didn’t think it would take that long, he did agree that the numbers from the last two reports could correctly be used to infer that.
Thus the headline could just as easily have been: Print is king for next millennium.
OK. Let’s get something straight. I’m not so naive that I think it will be thousands—or even hundreds—of years before most of us get our news using means other than print. But at the same time, we do a huge disservice to our readers and ourselves when we play with headlines like this.
Here’s the story as I see it.
• Was there an increase in digital circulation over the past six months? Yes, from 14 percent to 15 percent of total circulation.
• Did print take a nosedive over the past six months? No, print held up just fine.
• Did daily newspaper circulation drop over the past six months? No, overall it held steady.
Perhaps this is the news we should be sharing with advertisers and readers.
Do I think News & Tech has given up on print newspapers? No way. Their history tells me N&T is a firm believer in print. I just think it could have been a better headline. © Kevin Slimp 2012

Kevin Slimp is director of the Institute of Newspaper Technology. To read his past columns, go to www.kevinslimp.com. To learn about the institute, go to www.newspaperinstitute.com.

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