If Six Were Nine

The Chron cooks the books for a circulation boast

The proud headline greeted readers in the Sunday paper November 4: "Chronicle Now Sixth-Largest Daily."

According to the story, Houston's Leading Information Source was bigger than all but five newspapers in the country. Which is kind of funny, because everyone else in the business considers the Chronicle to be the ninth-largest daily.

Why the difference? For one thing, the Chron, unlike most people in the industry, doesn't include USA Today or The Wall Street Journal in what it calls "Metropolitan Newspapers," which is the category the Chron places itself in. The other two papers -- the largest in the country -- are "National Newspapers" and in a category all their own, according to the Chron's thinking.

Per the latest figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulations, the Chronicle has a daily circulation of 551,854. According to the Chronicle, the next-biggest newspaper, Long Island's Newsday, has a daily circulation of 551,848 -- exactly six copies fewer, but enough to vault the Chron over it to take sixth place.

Except that according to such papers as The New York Times and others who did stories on the latest circulation reports, Newsday has a daily circulation of about 577,000.

It turns out there's some fine print at the bottom of the chart published in the Chronicle that explains the discrepancy. "Daily circulation figures represent a weighted average of Monday through Saturday circulation. All figures calculated by Houston Chronicle Research Department."

Due to vagaries in ABC procedures, the Chron reports its daily figures as a simple Monday-Saturday average. Newsday reports differently -- one figure for Monday-Friday (577,354) and a separate one for Saturday (424,318). The Chron multiplied Newsday's Monday-Friday figure by five, added the Saturday figure and divided by six to come up with the number that was six copies fewer.

That method of calculating is a no-no, says ABC spokesperson Laura Hagensick. "Whenever a reporter calls and asks about doing it that way, we tell them not to. It's not 100 percent accurate," she says.

To get an accurate figure, you'd have to look at the individual "publisher's statements" for the relevant days, she says, because of such technicalities as bulk sales. "It's a complicated calculation," she says.

The ABC doesn't rank papers by circulation, it just distributes a list showing the figures, with the papers listed in alphabetical order. "I can't say, 'They shouldn't have said that,' because we don't do rankings, and we specifically say it's up to you to determine rankings," she says. "The trick is that people use calculations that are not 100 percent accurate because they're not auditors."

In its "We're Number Six!" story, Chronicle publisher and president Jack Sweeney said his paper's 1.1 percent increase in circulation was owed to its editorial excellence. "[W]e continue to be awarded honors in all subject areas -- from a national Headliners award for sports photography to the Lowell Thomas travel journalism gold award," he said.

Boy, ain't that the truth. I hope you weren't out there trying to find a paper the day after the Chron won the Lowell Thomas gold award.

Sweeney didn't mention all the subscription offers and other gimmicks that Houstonians have been bombarded with recently. Buy a large pizza from Papa John's on Saturday night and receive a bulldog edition of the Sunday Chron. Buy a year's subscription and get a $60 gift certificate for Kroger. And, in a blatant attempt to appeal to the young, hip readers the paper desperately covets, subscribe to the Chron and get a big discount on a subscription to Reader's Digest.

All that, and award-winning journalism too. (We're still looking for the newspaper that can't claim "award-winning journalism," by the way.) Just don't ask them to do any math for you.

Hack Like Me

In the aftermath of September 11, television stations across the country solemnly declared that even though November is a sweeps month, there would be no stories like "Soccer Mom By Day, Dominatrix By Night."

We guess that means it's safe to head to the city's gentlemen's clubs for a while, since TV's intrepid investigators won't be there to ferret out minor fire-code violations or free-spending vice cops.

Goofiness hasn't been completely eliminated, however, thanks to (of course) KPRC. On November 7, in a heavily hyped piece, anchor Dominique Sachse went "Behind the Veil" and posed as a Muslim to see what happened.

Which, as it turned out, was nothing much.

Armed with the sweeps-month weapon of choice -- hidden cameras -- Sachse went around the city with Najat Elsayed, the president of the University of Houston's Council of Islamic Relations.

"When we walked into the post office, I was shocked with the response we got," Sachse reported. "It was a room full of quiet people, and one person in particular kept staring."

What? She's shocked by "a room full of quiet people"? Since when is waiting in line at the post office a chatty cocktail party?

Sachse reported that she and her companion received "typical" service from postal employees.

They then went to several stores where they were "met with stares." And received typical service.

Finally, they headed to Hobby Airport, perhaps with an array of nail clippers in tow.

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