Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe
The Sun-Times wants Chicago to know the paper "is alive and well and vibrant and strong" -- in the words of publisher Cyrus Freidheim Jr. -- so it posted this story on page four of the Monday paper: "Sun-Times circulation up."
"Setting itself apart from most American newspapers," the story announced, the Sun-Times reported increases in both weekday circulation, up 0.3 percent to 313,174 copies, and Sunday circulation, up 3.4 percent to 255,906 copies.
The Sun-Times showing looked amazing. While papers everywhere were losing readers, it had gained them! On Monday the Audit Bureau of Circulations released its latest six-month circulation figures, and among the nation's dailies that report to the ABC, daily circulation was down 4.6 percent and Sunday circulation 4.9 percent.
The Tribune did even worse than that, and it can't be blamed for tucking away the news of its dismal showing inside the Tuesday business pages. The Tribune's weekday circulation dropped 7.8 percent and its Sunday circulation fell 5.8 percent.
But wait a minute . . . Along with its own figures, the Tribune reported the Sun-Times's. The Tribune said that although Sunday Sun-Times circulation rose by 4.5 percent, weekday circulation fell by 3.9 percent. That's what the ABC reported too.
Was the Sun-Times doing some voodoo with its weekday numbers?
No, that era's over -- or so we can all hope. The Sun-Times admitted in 2003 that under David Radler, its since deposed and imprisoned publisher, it had been cooking the books for seven years, inflating its actual circulation by more than 10 percent. In 2004 the ABC censured the Sun-Times, requiring it to submit to biannual audits and to come up with a plan to clean up its circulation practices. And in the meantime, it dropped the Sun-Times from its circulation reports.
Last March the ABC released the paper from censure status.
To celebrate, the Sun-Times decided to report the new ABC numbers in its own special way. Standard procedure is to compare average daily and Sunday circulations for the six-month period that's just ended -- in this case, April through September -- with the averages for the corresponding six months of the previous year. That's how the ABC does it, and it's how the Tribune reported it.
Instead, the Sun-Times compared the past six months with the six months just before. Spokesperson Tammy Chase says that while the paper was on censure, it was too busy cleaning up circulation to build circulation. But when it came off, "we were really able to put some planning and muscle into retaining and expanding the number of people who subscribe or buy our paper."
The paper even boasted about how it pulled off the miracle. It doubled the number of hawkers peddling the Sunday paper in certain neighborhoods, and it dropped the price of that paper from $1.50 to $1. It added a contest, Scratch2Win. And it got lucky with the Sox and Cubs both in the playoffs and Barack Obama running for president.
But now we pause for a reality check. Before weekday Sun-Times circulation went up a hair, it dropped hard for a long time. In March of 2004, the ABC reported a weekday Sun-Times circulation of 486,000. When it found out the Sun-Times was cheating, the ABC withdrew the number, and that fall publisher John Cruickshank told his staff it had been overstated by about 50,000 copies. Even so, the corrected circulation was some 120,000 copies above where the Sun-Times stands now.
Reality check II: The hundred-year-old Christian Science Monitor just announced that after 40 years of shrinking circulation, it's abandoning print (except for a Saturday magazine). Editor John Yemma promises a "much more robust Web presence" for the Monitor, which is subsidized by the Christian Science church, and no diminishment of its national and international coverage. Asked by the Monitor whether the New York Times will still be producing a print edition in ten years, publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. said, "The heart of the answer must be we can't care. . . . We must be where people want us for our information."
How long can Scratch2Win play Horatio at the bridge?