Leading newspapers jockey to claim top circulation

MCLEAN, VA: As the bad news in the newspaper industry continues, circulation numbers have become a source of pride - and contention - for some outlets.

MCLEAN, VA: As the bad news in the newspaper industry continues, circulation numbers have become a source of pride – and contention – for some outlets.

About a month after the Audit Bureau of Circulations released its numbers, which showed The Wall Street Journal had surpassed USA Today as the top-selling daily newspaper in the US, the latter continues to position itself as the nation's top-seller. When the ABC numbers were released, USA Today countered that it still had the largest print circulation, because the Journal's tally included online-only subscriptions.

In a statement this week, USA Today continued to position itself as the nation's top-selling print newspaper, this time based on readership numbers from the Fall 2009 Mediamark Research report.

USA Today will issue a press release following any reports of circulation figures by ABC and readership numbers by MRI,” said Susan Lavington, SVP, marketing, in a statement to PRWeek. “We use these materials to offer context to any reported growth and declines.”

She noted that the primary target for these messages are those covering the general media and newspaper industries, including trade journalists, but also consumers and the business community.

“Our messaging through the media serves to inform business partners and readers about our circulation and how our circulation/readership compares against the competitive set,” Lavington said.

The Wall Street Journal, though, is standing by the ABC reports.

“The recent ABC FAS-FAX [report] is clear,” wrote Ashley Huston, director of communications at Dow Jones (which owns the Journal), in an e-mailed statement to PRWeek. “The Wall Street Journal is the largest newspaper by paid circulation and has almost three times more individual paid circulation than USA Today.”

But a number of PR pros suggest that an emphasis on circulation is misguided in a digital age.

“They might be fighting over circulation, but it is a moving target, and PR pros don't really care about it. That doesn't decide where you go with an exclusive or a campaign because they are totally different papers,” said Nick Ragone, partner at Ketchum. “The second point is the print circulation really doesn't matter very much. It is such an outdated metric. It is the online traffic you really care about.”

In the case of USA Today, Ragone said the newspaper would be better off focusing on communications that highlight its great Web site. “Their stories online have a high pass-along value, their stories get retweeted, their reporters are on Twitter, and their content gets syndicated. As a PR guy, you are looking for that multiplier effect.”

He said the previous points would provide USA Today with a strong point of distinction, because the Journal charges for online access. “My counsel would be don't be in competition with the other guy on print circulation. Talk about how viral your content is, how robust your Web site is,” Ragone told PRWeek. In terms of the Journal, he suggested that the newspaper emphasize its video network. “Video is embedded in every story now, which for a PR guy is great because it is a double hit with print and video.”

Sandra Sokoloff, SVP and director of national media relations at Porter Novelli, added that the circulation fight is reflective of a larger issue. “The numbers are really irrelevant. It is about what is going on with traditional print media, and the loss of production and staff in newsrooms and shrinking revenues,” said Sokoloff. “It is just emblematic of all the challenges they are facing.”

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