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Dissemble: to conceal the truth, facts, or real emotions behind false or misleading pretenses

Why is it that failing institutions try to disguise what’s really happening with “misleading pretenses”?

Item:

The morning of April 30 Poynter.org’s Andrew Beaujon reported on the March, 2013 circulation numbers released by the Alliance for Audited Media (formerly the Audit Bureau of Circulations). Beaujon wrote,

The New Orleans Times-Picayune reported Sunday circulation of 175,097, a 13 percent increase over March [2012] … Print circulation was in fact down about 9 percent, –  to 140,243 — but the addition of 34,854 digital non-replica copies of the paper drove the large gain.

What? Print was down 9%, but circulation was up 13%?

The difference was in those “34,854 digital non-replica copies of the paper”, which Beaujon explained in the last paragraph of another report published later the same day:

In an email to Poynter, Times-Picayune President and Publisher Ricky Mathews said the digital non-replica copies “represent the average unique users of our digital apps during the six month period ending March 31, 2013.” Those apps are not bundled with subscriptions, Mathews said.

In short, NOLA Media Group fudged its circulation numbers to make things look better than they really are. (They didn’t even report any “daily” circulation counts, apparently hiding behind the notion that three-day-a-week circulation figures are not comparable to traditional Monday-Friday counts.)

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The same day that Beaujon’s report appeared at Poynter.org, Picayune editor and NOLA Media Group vice president of content Jim Amoss announced the Picayune’s new TP Street tabloid and said in an online comment,

NOLA.com and the current Times-Picayune are … doing rather well, judging by readership growth and feedback.

When asked in another comment what he meant by “readership growth” in view of the fact that the Picayune had actually reported a 9% drop in Sunday’s print circulation, Amoss did not respond.

Item:

In his May 17 interview with Melanie Hebert on WUPL-TV’s The 504, Amoss again obfuscated the truth. In response to a direct question from Hebert on what the Picayune’s circulation figures are now compared to what they were before the announcement of the cutbacks, Amoss dissembled by saying,

If you look at the report that was filed at the end of March, our circulation is essentially in line with the industry trends, and our online growth has been phenomenal, so, combined, we have a pretty extraordinary reach in this community.

Hebert pressed Amoss for more details:

But those are vague terms. I’m sorry, what does that mean? … Can you give us a number for circulation?

Amoss refused to answer, responding,

It’s available in the report, and you’re free to look it up.

Item:

In response to a scathing analysis released on May 12 by New York Times media columnist David Carr (the same columnist who wrote about the changes coming to the Picayune before the paper itself had announced them), Amoss wrote in a letter to the editor of the Times,

I want to assure David Carr that we are not the “ghost ship” he describes in his column. … We are proud that our audience is growing steadily and that more people are getting their news from us in more ways than ever before.

Conclusion:

“Non-digital replica copies”, “readership growth”, “reach”, and “audience” are all terms that disguise the fact that circulation is down. That’s the truest measurement of how the community is responding to NOLA Media Group’s “digital first” strategy.