We’ve written quite a bit at Poynter about how newspaper circulation numbers are basically meaningless now.Yep. That's about it on AAM's numbers: "basically meaningless". But, Kirkland gives it a whirl.
Kirland narrows in on one category "digital nonreplica" to see if there is any substance there because it "reflects mobile app use and paywall subscribers, two of the major growth areas for newspapers trying to counter print declines." Here's his chart:
Kirkland notes the drop in the last 6 months at a number of major newspapers. Why? Well, AAM rules are flexible and newspapers get to choose how they apply them. AAM speculates that some of the newspapers with lower figures may already be changing to a possible upcoming rule change.
A reader currently counts as a circulation unit as long as he or she accesses an app or paywalled website at least once per month. If AAM changes that, the reader would count only for the days he or she accesses it — more like how print circulation is calculated.Thus, a newspaper that counted Mary for a 30 day reader per month may now count her only as the 15 or 20 day digital reader that she actually is.
Then there are "ups and downs from promotional subscription rates and the introduction and retirement of various digital products."
But Kirkland suggests that the figures may not be due to changing measuring standards or introduction/retirement of digital products. Maybe newspapers have reached their high point in digital circulation.
Alternatively, these numbers really could mean digital circulation has plateaued for some newspapers. But it’s hard to tell, especially because newspapers continue to write press releases disguised as news stories whenever the numbers are released rather than providing meaningful context.Sam Kirkland seems to have hit on the key to newspaper circulation decline even though he writes about it only in conjunction with reporting on newspaper circulation figures. Newspapers are no longer focused on giving good news stories. (As my friend MaxRedline often points out), too often newspapers regurgitate press releases from organizations they are supposed to be covering and frame that as news coverage.
So, in light of all this, what is Kirkland's answer to the question of whether AAM digital circulation data has any meaning?
So here’s the moral of the story: Digital circulation numbers might mean something when it comes to taking the newspaper industry’s temperature, but it’s exceedingly difficult to find out if they do given the pace of change, both in the products newspapers offer and how AAM counts readers. It’s almost impossible to find apples-to-apples comparisons in such a bizarre fruit salad.Pace of change in newspaper products and AAM counting rules make AAM stats "almost impossible" to compare and really useless as any sort of indicator of how newspapers are doing in comparison to the past and in comparison to each other today. That's why there is no longer an AAM top 25 newspaper list. No one, not even AAM, has any idea how to compare current newspaper circulation in a meaningful way.