Are The New York Times, USA Today, and Essence magazine making up fictional readers? They say it’s not fiction, but simply “pass-along” readership. Critics charge publications are playing with math to try to hide the truth: that many readers are moving online, and as circulations for print fall, pubs will have difficulty defending their ad rates.
Essence magazine is a strong publication and, according to MRI, one of the most popular women’s magazines in the country across ethnicities. A media buy in Essence puts your ad in 1.05 million magazine copies. Which is why we’re disappointed that Essence needs to exaggerate its readership.
The Essence media kit claims that 8 million people read each issue — OK, actually 7.845 million — which is a fantastic concept since Essence only publishes 1.05 million copies. In other words, Essence, to convince advertisers that their money is going further, claims each print issue is read by 7.5 people. To put this in perspective, let’s assume Essence is right. There are 36.6 million African-Americans in the United States. With 8 million readers per issue and 3.2 average people per African-American home, this means that Essence magazine is reaching almost every black adult woman in the United States every month. Nice readership!
Essence is not the only publication to make outrageous claims about pass-along readership. USA Today throws around a total readership number of 5 million, with a circulation of just over 2.2 million (USA Today notes in its fine print that some of the 5 million readers are online. The numbers are hard to parse; USA Today claims 10.6 million unique consumers visit its web site each month, which might break down to 1.4 million readers online per day.)
Most disappointing, even the stalwart, truth-laden New York Times plays with the numbers. NYT has a daily paid circulation of 1.08 million, but claims its readers magically multiply to 4.53 million in total, for a breathtaking pass-along rate of 4.2 readers per copy. Here’s an NYT exec defending such claims during an analyst call in March 2005:
“I think advertisers are becoming better informed in regard to what the circulation analysis means,” Times Chief Executive Janet L. Robinson said. She said it’s important to fully explain to advertisers what circulation numbers mean. “But it’s also very important for us to convert to a readership model as opposed to pure circulation numbers, which we certainly are in the process of doing.”
If all of this smells like fetid equine manure, well, who are we to judge? Sure, newspaper and magazine circulations are off a cliff, but that doesn’t mean that their publishers would stoop to defending impressions by making up a fictional “readership” count, would it? Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt. So we propose a fair, mathematically sound solution. Take any print publication’s actual circulation. Multiply it by 5, to factor in all the fictional people who will pass along each copy to their friends. And then divide by 5, to factor out all the people who skip the page where your ad runs.