You know until now I really didn’t understand what all the fuss was over circulation numbers.            

I mean, how controversial could the subject be? In the old days, you counted the number of newspapers you printed, subtracted the leftovers after distributing or selling them at the newsstand, and you more or less had your circulation numbers.            

Not anymore.            

Ever since digital readership came into play, producing accurate and true circulation figures has become something of an exercise in quantum theory. It’s all open to interpretation. What the Alliance for Audited Media has been tasked to do twice a year—come up with a fair and equal comparison of newspaper circulations—is a cruel, unusual and almost impossible job to get right to everyone’s satisfaction.            

Given the way news is distributed and consumed these days, it’s become an increasingly difficult challenge to make those heretofore apples-to-apples comparisons. The digital numbers thrown into the stew was one thing, but then AAM decided to toss in “branded” editions, as well. The result is now a circulation report that borders on the nonsensical.            

For example, AAM reported in its May 1 Snapshot report that as of March 31 the (San Jose, Calif.) Mercury News had a Tuesday-Friday print circulation of 110,039. That would put the fine Media News Group newspaper somewhere around 50th in the country if measured by weekday print circulation alone. However, when adding some 363,852 “branded” editions in both print and digital, the Mercury News’ total average circulation swells to 581,582, placing the paper sixth in AAM’s U.S. overall circulation size. That puts it on that category’s Top 10 list ahead of the New York Post, New York Daily News, Chicago Tribune and Newsday, all of which have two to three times the amount of print circulation as the Mercury News.            

That doesn’t make sense to me.            

By the same token, USA Today has a total daily average circulation of 3.3 million. The print edition count makes up 1.2 million, or about 36 percent of that total. USA Today doesn’t charge for access to its website or mobile applications and began including digital readers in its circulation numbers for the first time last year, giving the paper’s overall total a huge gain.

The Wall Street Journal reported a total average circulation of 2.3 million. The print edition made up 1.4 million, or 59 percent of the total.

The New York Times’ total circulation was 2.2 million with print circulation of 680,905, or 32 percent of the total. Of course, both the Wall Street Journal and New York Times have paywalls that limit nonsubscribers’ access to their digital editions. And the AAM’s new rules allow newspapers to include their digital editions, tablet or smartphone apps, PDF replicas and e-reader editions in their total circulation.            

So which one of the Big Three is really the biggest?            

There’s more to this nonsense. The AAM’s report this year included 610 U.S. newspapers, with almost half of them reporting a Monday-Friday average (others report Thursday-Saturday or Thursday-Sunday, still others report Tuesday-Friday and so on as the AAM last year stopped requiring daily newspapers with circulations of more than 50,000 to provide five-day-average figures).            

Also, newspapers can decide which digital categories they wish to report. And, get this, some readers are counted two, three or four times based on the digital products and newspaper apps they use.            

It’s fuzzy math, all right. And, I suppose as long as we don’t take it all too seriously, it’s just that: all right.

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