by Eric Ginsburg

Last month, Yes Weekly reported a dramatic reduction in circulation, from 43,000 copies a week to just 18,000, but questions about whether the newspaper’s circulation was artificially inflated remain.

It happened quietly, without any fanfare or public announcement. You wouldn’t notice anything had changed, probably, unless you were looking for it.

But sometime on Oct. 15, the web editor for the Association of Alternative Newsmedia’s site changed the circulation number listed for Yes Weekly newspaper, dropping it from 43,000 to 18,000, about 40 percent of the original total.

Jason Zaragoza, the deputy director and website editor for the AAN — to which Yes Weekly, Triad City Beat and many other alternative weekly newspapers around the country belong — wrote a note next to the new figure: “(As of October 2015).” But Charles Womack, the owner and publisher of Yes Weekly, didn’t say exactly when the drop occurred, Zaragoza said in an interview. The notation for last month, he said, refers to when Womack provided the number after Zaragoza requested it, not necessarily when it happened.

The drop may look more sudden than it actually is — while the AAN tries to update the number once a year, for some reason that hasn’t happened since the association accepted Yes Weekly into its ranks in 2010, five years into the paper’s existence.

But there are a bunch of plot points in between that don’t add up, and that’s a problem; papers like Yes Weekly survive off advertising, and ad rates are directly reliant on circulation.

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This story actually begins earlier, and in order to be as transparent as possible, let’s pause to address the elephant in the room. Here’s a disclaimer, and it’s pretty big.

I worked at Yes Weekly newspaper for three years, beginning in January 2011 as an intern. That fall, Womack hired me part-time at the urging of the editor, Brian Clarey, and in early 2012, Yes Weekly offered me a full-time position. At the end of January 2014, I gave Womack my notice, handing him a letter of resignation alongside my colleague and editor, Jordan Green.

We had been invited to help launch a new venture, Triad City Beat, run by Clarey. Womack had fired him, on the spot and with little warning, on Election Day the previous November. Green and Clarey worked at Yes Weekly from its inception, almost nine years prior.

I had a number of reasons for leaving, including frustration about an increased workload for minimal pay and low morale due in part to Clarey’s sudden firing. But on the whole, I was and still am incredibly grateful for the opportunity I was afforded to work at Yes Weekly, and appreciated Womack’s willingness to take a chance on me as a young reporter. After three years under my belt and with an intriguing opportunity before me, it just felt like the right time to make a transition.

During my time at Yes Weekly, on several occasions my co-workers expressed concern that the publication actually printed fewer copies than it claimed to advertisers. It’s a small office, and gossip traveled rapidly and frequently. I didn’t attempt to verify these concerns, even though they were primarily raised by a sales representative (who still works there).

Green and Clarey remember the same thing, as do at least three former sales representatives. In general, like me, they focused on doing their jobs and ignored the issue. But Green said that concerns about a possible discrepancy did contribute to his decision to seek other employment. Two former sales reps said they left Yes Weekly for similar reasons. After all, if a gap between alleged and actual circulation existed, it would mean advertisers only received a portion of what they paid for, meaning a sales rep would have misrepresented the truth.

Aly Colón, the John S. and James L. Knight professor of media ethics at Washington & Lee University, said in an interview that such an inconsistency could hurt the entire operation.

“The first victim of any type of inaccuracy or deception is the publication, because that credibility which is so essential to the publication is being assailed,” he said.

“It can affect the type of business [a publication] does, because usually circulation has an impact on what you charge your advertisers,” Colón continued. “The whole idea of a newspaper misrepresenting itself in any way has an impact on the whole newspaper.”

But none of us worked in distribution. That was handled separately by people we rarely if ever interacted with; generally it remained out of sight and out of mind. It fell under the publisher’s purview, and as much as possible we all tried to stick to our respective departments and let people do their jobs. As Green put it in an interview for this article, he didn’t want the sales team meddling with what we were writing about, and so it didn’t make sense to stick his nose into the distribution, advertising or art departments.

Once Clarey, Green and I started Triad City Beat, we quickly gained a firsthand understanding of how distribution works. Since its inception, we’ve driven weekly routes alongside a few colleagues to bring the paper to the public. That process — ordering papers, receiving weekly receipts for the 10,000 copies printed, seeing the invoice on top of the bundles, and so on — proved to be illuminating.

We wondered aloud how many papers Yes Weekly printed each week. The pallets used to be dropped off directly in front of the business’ office where we had worked, and we’d each seen it numerous times. The figure on the publication’s website — 43,000 — as well as its AAN and LinkedIn pages didn’t sit right, especially after seeing exactly what 10,000 copies looks like and realizing it takes our team of five more than 50 aggregate hours to distribute them.

But we didn’t do anything about it. Why? We feared it would look petty, or like industry infighting. Our former employer is a direct competitor. Both businesses are free weekly newspapers, covering roughly the same territory. It would look like, and might be, a conflict of interest. Plus, we didn’t know how we’d go about gathering facts. So we sat on it.

Journalists, however, are pretty bad at ignoring their hunches. We enter this taxing industry because of an insatiable desire to tell compelling stories, to doggedly search for facts and to shine light on the truth. It’s that drive that allows us to sift through endless dead ends, spend hours in courthouse basements thumbing through records or wake up at 6 a.m. to drive to Jamestown to stake out a delivery truck.

In August 2015, about 18 months after we launched this paper and shortly after receiving several intriguing tips about Yes Weekly’s distribution, I couldn’t hold back.

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Read more:

Yes Weekly prints at the Fayetteville Observer and is dropped off by a hulking white truck every Wednesday morning. Usually, if the driver isn’t running late, he arrives at the Jamestown News office shortly before 7 a.m. with the delivery, leaving soon after unloading five pallets of Yes Weekly. That is, at least, according to the four different weeks in August, September and October when I waited in my car, parked in an adjacent parking lot, to observe.

Womack owns and runs Womack Newspapers Inc., which also owns the Jamestown News, the Adams Farm Gazette and recently acquired Creative Loafing Charlotte. According to an employee list printed inside of Yes Weekly, the paper’s distribution department consists of just two employees, Janice Gantt and Brandon Combs. I figured with even a small window of time before either of them arrived, I could see the invoice on top of the newspaper delivery.

On Aug. 26, I made my first attempt.

I arrived before I expected the delivery truck from Fayetteville to be there, pulling into the adjacent Wells Fargo parking lot and backing into a spot where I could see the area behind the Jamestown News in my rearview mirror. Slumping down, I could still film the entire thing on my phone.

At 7:12 a.m., the truck pulled away, and once it was out of sight I hustled over to the five Yes Weekly pallets, left near a few unused newspaper boxes in the back parking lot. Each had a piece of paper on top listing exactly how many newspapers it contained, broken out by number per bundle, bundles per row, total number of rows, bundles on partial rows and any odd papers. And on the front of one of the pallets, I found an invoice.

The invoice is incredibly thorough, even listing the weight of the delivery and the driver’s name. It cites the customer as Yes Weekly and includes Gantt as a contact person. It includes the previous day’s date — likely when the order was placed — and states that it is “Truck 1 of 1.” Most importantly, there’s a total figure entered for the quantity of papers: 17,700.

I examined the other pallets in the order quickly, noting that each one was numbered, such as “Skid number 2 of 5,” and featured the date as well as Yes Weekly’s name. And then, before Gantt or Combs might see me, I left hurriedly.

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I returned about a month later, on Sept. 23. I showed up with one of our freelance writers, Anthony Harrison, and we took his car to avoid being noticed. I filmed the delivery truck as it left at 7:02 a.m., and kept rolling as I approached and examined the stacks of newspapers.

Again: 17,700 copies on the invoice.

I took photos of the sheets on top of each pallet, or skid, that spelled out in detail how many papers each held. Later I added them up, and hit a clean 17,700.

I came back on Oct. 14, and nothing had changed save for the delivery driver running later and leaving at 7:26 a.m. Again, the invoice listed the quantity as 17,700 and matched the other previous data. I figured I’d come back two weeks later, on Oct. 28, to have evenly spaced data samples, but with three matching invoices falling in three different months I had what I initially set out to document.

But before I walked away, Gantt pulled up right next to me in the lot.

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After reminding Gantt who I was, I asked if this was the entire delivery.

“No, there’s more coming,” she said.

Surprised, I asked if she meant for Yes Weekly, and she said yes.

Why then, I asked, did the invoice say “Truck 1 of 1,” pointing to the spot on the invoice she had picked up.

Gantt said somebody else was doing it and asked why I wanted to know, so I explained I was curious about the discrepancy between the 17,700 figure on the invoice and the 43,000 copies Yes Weekly claimed on its website.

Gantt again claimed another truck was coming, adding that it would also bring the papers to the Jamestown News.

Incredulous, I walked back to my car, and then waited.

Gantt loading papers into her car on Oct. 14.
Gantt loading papers into her car on Oct. 14.

That didn’t make any sense, so after enlisting the help of several other Triad City Beat staffers, the stakeout began. We periodically checked the parking lot outside Yes Weekly’s office, at one point having someone sit on it for several hours, and even swung by Ziggy’s in Winston-Salem, a business owned by Womack, to look for any evidence of a delivery at a different location.

The stakeout ended after sunset, around 8:30 p.m. on Oct. 14. No second delivery ever materialized during our stakeout. The next day, an employee in the Fayetteville Observer shipping department said only one truck had been scheduled for delivery to Yes Weekly the day before, and nothing was lined up for Oct. 15. Later, Gantt did not return a voicemail requesting an interview and Womack did not respond to an email requesting additional contact information.

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The next day I talked to Zaragoza, curious about where the 43,000 figure that was currently on the Association of Alternative Newsmedia website had come from.

Some of the AAN members self-report their circulation numbers, and actually it’s pretty common, he said.

“I would say of our 113 papers, there’s probably 30 or so that are not audited,” Zaragoza said. His records didn’t list whether Yes Weekly self-reported or if one of three independent auditing groups confirmed the numbers, but after checking with the Alliance for Audited Media, Circulation Verification Council and Verified Audit Circulation, he determined Yes Weekly would have to be self-reported.

There can be valid reasons papers choose not to be audited, Zaragoza said. As one of the people behind a small paper like Triad City Beat, which also isn’t audited, I completely understand.

“Each publisher, it really depends on whether they see the value to be audited,” Zaragoza said.  “It might be too expensive… It’s mostly going to be the smaller markets where advertisers aren’t going to be hung up on circulation and pickup rate and things like that.”

After the interview, he talked to Womack, changed the distribution number on Yes Weekly’s AAN page from 43,000 to 18,000, and again confirmed that the paper isn’t audited. To the outside world, it appeared that Yes Weekly’s circulation had just fallen about 58 percent in a matter of minutes.

Inside each issue of the newspaper, Yes Weekly lists several professional associations it belongs to, such as the AAN. But Yes Weekly is no longer a member of two groups named: the Southeastern Advertising Publishers Association, according to an association employee who said the publication last joined in 2012, and the Alternative Weekly Network, an advertising group that generally sells regional or national ads in its member papers around the country.

SAPA has circulation of 43,000 on file for Yes Weekly, an employee who declined to provide his name said. But he said the paper apparently failed to comply with its last audit in 2006, conducted by the Circulation Verification Council, or CVC.

“They are not in good standing with the CVC at the present time,” the employee said.

Despite keeping the name on their masthead, Yes Weekly left the AWN late last year, the group’s media coordinator John Morrison said via email.

Executive Director Mark Hanzlik said that to his knowledge, Yes Weekly’s circulation had never been verified by an outside source.

“When Yes Weekly was member of AWN, they claimed 45,000 as their rate base circulation,” he said, adding that the AWN updates rates and circulation numbers for member publications annually. The 45,000 figure — which refers to number of copies distributed weekly — is the most current number Hanzlik has for Yes Weekly. It was updated at the beginning of 2014, he said.

Yes Weekly joined Voice Media Group to benefit from the national advertising network after leaving the AWN. But Ben Crockett, a national sales assistant with VMG, has a different circulation number on file.

“We’ve been partnering with them to sell their national advertising for about two years now,” Crockett said. “Yes Weekly circulation is currently at 38,000. Those are the number of papers that hit the streets each week.”

Generally, Voice Media Group checks in with its papers on a quarterly basis “to see if their circulation has fluctuated at all,” Crockett said. Yes Weekly’s circulation in 2014 and 2015 was 38,000, he said.

“We require audits for circulation for all of our papers,” he said. “If they do not have a third-party audit, we require a publisher’s statement. It’s basically a sworn affidavit.”

The last sworn publisher’s statement from Womack came in the beginning of 2015, claiming an average circulation of 34,500, Crockett said, adding that the circulation has obviously risen since then. Crockett also said he’s currently in the process of determining projected circulation for member papers for 2016, and “recently” asked Yes Weekly what number to use. Yes Weekly instructed him to go with 38,000, he said.

After seeing the 18,000 figure on the Association of Alternative Newsmedia’s website, Crockett called the discrepancy “somewhat alarming.”

“It’s certainly concerning,” he said, adding that he would need to look into it.

Later, Crockett couldn’t be reached for comment about any additional communication with Yes Weekly.

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Later on Oct. 15 — the day after Gantt saw me checking the Yes Weekly delivery and claimed another drop was coming, and a few hours after Zaragoza changed the AAN’s figure to show a circulation of 18,000 — publisher and owner Charles Womack sent me an email.

“As you know Eric, we are not a mailed or paid subscription-based pub so we don’t keep as close an eye on this as a paid product — but we certainly are not embarrassed to discuss our numbers,” he wrote in an email that arrived at 9:05 p.m. “Womack Newspapers Inc. prints in excess of 51,000 papers per week. We approximate Yes Weekly to have 43,000 plus weekly readers based on an avg. press run of 20,000.”

Later, Womack did not respond to multiple requests for comment other than to paraphrase his earlier email in the body of a new message. Emails and phone calls were not returned as of press time despite repeated requests for clarification.

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It makes sense to pause here and briefly explain some industry jargon and terminology.

A free newspaper’s circulation refers to the number of copies that actually make it to the streets. That figure is generally considered to be lower than the number of readers or readership, which is often calculated as circulation minus returns — the papers that don’t get picked up — multiplied by 2.5 (think of someone grabbing a copy at a coffee shop and then putting it back, or bringing it home so a spouse or roommate can read it later). Readership will often include online readers as well, for which it’s much easier to obtain an exact number.

Press run can be the same thing as circulation. It refers to how many copies a publication actually prints, as opposed to what reaches the streets. Susan Harper, the publisher of Triangle-based alternative weekly paper Indy Week, said they will sometimes print extra copies of a popular issue such as the annual “Best Of” to keep or to hand out. In many cases, including at Triad City Beat, press run and circulation are the same number.

Also, it’s generally acceptable for the exact number of copies distributed weekly to fluctuate slightly as long as the average circulation number matches up. In other words, if a paper printed 41,000 papers one week and 45,000 the next, it would still be okay to claim a circulation of 43,000.

Why does any of this matter? Well, free weekly papers, even more so than paid dailies, are dependent on advertising for revenue, and ad rates are generally based on circulation and readership. Advertisers agree to a specific price based on how many people they expect to reach. In larger markets, as Zaragoza said, advertisers might ask all sorts of questions about return rates, circulation and more. But regardless, what they’re paying is heavily contingent on a publication’s circulation.

Okay, so back to the email from Womack. He claimed that Womack Newspapers Inc. prints “in excess of 51,000 papers per week,” which would include the Jamestown News, Yes Weekly, and Creative Loafing Charlotte (the Adams Farm Gazette is monthly, and also serves a specific neighborhood). That 51,000 figure is difficult to understand, because Creative Loafing Charlotte “distributes more than 47,000 copies of its print edition each Thursday,” according to the newspaper’s website. Womack did say “in excess,” but even 17,770 copies of Yes Weekly added to the Charlotte total would mean considerable excess, and that’s excluding the business’ two other publications.

Just a couple hours after reporting to Zaragoza and the AAN that Yes Weekly’s circulation is 18,000 — a bit higher than the 17,700 listed on the three invoices I saw, but close — his email claims an average press run of 20,000.

But there’s a bigger problem.

Womack claims in his email that: “We approximate Yes Weekly to have 43,000 plus weekly readers.” Regardless of how he arrived at that figure, that’s not what Yes Weekly claimed before they knew I was looking into the issue and before Zaragoza’s call. A circulation map on Yes Weekly’s website clearly stated: “43,000 papers distributed free every Wednesday.” The company’s LinkedIn page also explicitly says 43,000 papers and not readers each week.

As far as readership goes, the LinkedIn page claims Yes Weekly has “over 100,000 readers per week.” The newspaper’s Facebook page claims to be “serving over 140,000 readers throughout the Triad, 52 weeks a year,” and a demographic chart of readers on the site from 2014 claimed “Weekly Readership 149,000.”

The terms “circulation,” “print run,” “readers” or “readership” can be confusing, especially if you don’t work in the industry. But saying “papers distributed” is much more straightforward; it means exactly what it sounds like.

By the end of the day on Oct. 15, one day after Womack learned I had questions about Yes Weekly’s circulation, the weekly readership figure was removed from the demographic chart on the newspaper’s website. Also, the bottom of the circulation map, where it said, “43,000 papers distributed free every Wednesday,” had been clipped. But I had already saved screenshots of the originals.

before-after

The two figures weren’t replaced with anything, and after telling the AAN its circulation is 18,000 and emailing me to say the print run averages 20,000 later the same day, Womack didn’t put up any new figures for readership, circulation or print run on Yes Weekly’s online material. The frequently used Facebook page, claiming 140,000+ weekly readers, and the LinkedIn page plainly stating “We distribute 43,000 papers weekly” were untouched as of press time.

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Several former advertising employees at Yes Weekly said in recent interviews that they worried about whether the circulation number they were told to use reflected the right amount. We’re granting anonymity because all of them feared retaliation and most or all still work in the same or a similar industry. None are employees of Triad City Beat.

One sales rep who worked at Yes Weekly for several years said that for the duration of employment, ad sales were based on a circulation of 43,000.

“I feel like I knew in my heart we didn’t do that, but I don’t think I ever had proof of it,” the former employee said. The former employee asked Womack about the perceived discrepancy, and said he was evasive but didn’t admit to a lower figure.

A second former sales employee who worked at Yes Weekly until a few years ago said the sales sheet she used for four years didn’t change, though she couldn’t remember the exact circulation number given.

“There were of course rumors inside of the office of Yes Weekly not printing the amount we said,” she recalled. “I remember staying out of it because that’s not my department.”

That environment of suspicion within the sales department, fueled by occasional disbelieving comments from potential advertisers, contributed to her decision to leave, she said.

“This number matters,” she said. “I was young and I was loyal and I listened to my boss. That’s not my department, but we should be involved as sales people. It’s basically the drivers. They’re the ones who get to see it on a pallet and know.”

A third former employee says she quit because of the rumors.

She remembers a specific incident where one of her accounts ordered inserts to go inside each copy of the paper. The total number of papers was somewhere around 40,000, she recalled, though she couldn’t put her finger on an exact figure. She picked up the inserts from the account and brought them back to the office, she said, but then a co-worker intimated that there would be far too many inserts to mate with the available papers.

“There was definitely an impression that there was a discrepancy,” she said. “It wasn’t the first time there was a discrepancy about how many go out versus how many we said. That was actually one of the things that led me to want me to leave because I was concerned that I wasn’t delivering what I was promising.”

The former employee, who still works in media sales, said that’s a big problem.

“The only thing you really have is the circulation number,” she said. “The circulation number is really important for print. I never had return rates — how many that were left that you picked up. People are smart, and most of them know enough to ask. The sales reps, it makes them look bad.

“It’s not a victimless crime because you’re taking people’s money under false pretenses,” she continued, “but you’re also having your employees misrepresent, and that’s ultimately part of the reason I left.”

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Let’s return briefly to something else puzzling in Womack’s email on Oct. 15.

Womack claimed that “we don’t keep as close an eye on this as a paid product,” a possible comparison to the Jamestown News, a paid publication which he owns. Does that make any sense?

Indy Week, the free alternative-weekly newspaper covering the nearby Triangle region, used to be printed at the Fayetteville Observer, where Yes Weekly prints.

Publisher Susan Harper said Indy Week switched their printing to the Charlotte Observer in early 2015, likely the first week of February. But the process in Fayetteville, which Indy Week followed for years, was consistent and specific.

“We would send them a press-and-ship order,” Harper said. “It would have the total number of copies we were having printed, times the number of pages per copy. We were literally telling them how many pages total we were printing. We would have a line that would say the number of copies… and how many bundles we expected and how many copies per bundle. I mean, that’s how explicit we got.”

The Fayetteville Observer expected a specified order each week, even if the amount didn’t change, and billed monthly for the cost, Harper said.

“We did get emailed invoices each week giving us a report confirming the print run and what the charge was for that week,” she said. “We would confirm that because we didn’t want to pay for papers that they hadn’t printed.”

Knowing the exact number printed is very important, she said, because each driver is given a specific assignment with stops and number per stop, so they need to receive the right number of bundles.

“We actually count out the number of bundles we have for our delivery people,” Harper said. “If we’re short, we need to know because we need to contact the printer. It’s very important to us that we have the correct number of bundles and papers delivered to each place and that we know exactly how many papers there are; otherwise our drivers are going to be short while they’re out delivering.”

Kiffany Cain, who oversees commercial customer support for the Fayetteville Observer, said generally commercial publications send press orders before each print run.

“Any of our commercial jobs, and that includes other newspapers, would have to send in a press order,” Cain said, adding that the press order includes information about page count, the quantity, which pages are in color and shipping information, among other details.

The “bill of lading,” or invoice attached to deliveries, often doesn’t state the number of copies because it’s considered proprietary, Cain said, but the number is still included for some clients.

At a minimum, bills are sent directly to the business or whoever is paying for the press order on a monthly basis, Cain said, but it’s usually more frequent for weeklies.

“Generally the commercial jobs, if they’re a weekly publication, I send them out each week,” Cain said of the printing bills.

She directed specific questions about Yes Weekly to Production Manager Pam Richards, who could not be reached for comment.

Indy Week prints and distributes 35,000 papers each week, and has 17 delivery people to get the job done, including restocking some stops on the weekend. For the sake of comparison, Triad City Beat distributes 10,000 copies using five drivers. Yes Weekly claims to employ two delivery drivers to distribute anywhere from 17,700 to 45,000 copies a week.

And that’s the question at the crux of the matter — how many copies does Yes Weekly distribute, and if the number has changed, when and why did the change occur?

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There’s another number we can include, based on the sales kit posted on Yes Weekly’s website. The list of advertising rates on the document, which says “effective June 1, 2014” in the top right corner, is explicitly for Yes Weekly (and not Womack Newspapers Inc. more broadly). Even though the publication pulled down some information about its circulation and readership after finding out that I was asking questions about it, the rate sheet document and other figures remained.

A quick glance at the list of rates reveals nothing — there’s no explicit reference to circulation or readership, just pricing based on ad size and frequency. But one detail at the bottom is telling.

The form says inserts cost $60/thousand, and that a “complete ROP” — which is industry jargon for “run of press,” or more simply, the press run — costs $2,580. If you multiply $60 by 43 (since $60 is the price per thousand), you get $2,580 exactly. Inserts are placed directly into each copy of a newspaper and distributed, so it’s safe to say that based on these numbers, Yes Weekly’s circulation as of June 1, 2014 was portrayed at 43,000 copies.

Here’s a chronological breakdown of the numbers we have for Yes Weekly’s circulation:

2010: Yes Weekly reports 43,000 copies a week to the AAN.

2012: YW reports 43,000 copies a week to SAPA.

2013: Former sales employees remember 40-43,000 copies.

Early 2014: YW reports 45,000 copies a week to the AWN.

June 1, 2014: YW reports 43,000 copies a week based on insert rate.

2014: YW reports 38,000 copies to VMG.

Early 2015: YW reports 34,500 copies to VMG.

Later 2015: YW reports 38,000 copies to VMG.

August-October 2015: I document 17,700 copies a week three times.

October 2015: YW reports “recently” (as of October 2015) to VMG that it will distribute 38,000 copies a week in 2016.

Oct. 15, 2015: YW reports 18,000 copies a week to the AAN after I prompt an inquiry, a day after I’m seen next to 17,700 copies.

Oct. 15, 2015: YW reports average print run of 20,000 to me via email, and scrubs the reference to 43,000 copies from the Yes Weekly website.

In his Oct. 15 email, Womack wrote, “As you know Eric, we are not a mailed or paid subscription-based pub so we don’t keep as close an eye on this as a paid product…” In his Nov. 5 email, which is prefaced by saying “I wanted to make sure you had my statement,” Womack stuck to his original claim.

Are we to believe that Womack, who allegedly adjusted Yes Weekly’s circulation up to nine times (see above timeline) in less than two years, and who according to Indy Week publisher Susan Harper should be receiving weekly receipts from the Fayetteville Observer, doesn’t keep a close eye on his circulation numbers?

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A week after Womack told the AAN that Yes Weekly’s circulation is 18,000 on Oct. 15, the newspaper’s editor, Britt Chester, separated from the job. The Oct. 21 issue would be his last at Yes Weekly, and in the following issue, he didn’t appear on the masthead (which still listed defunct memberships in SAPA from 2012 and the AWN from 2014).

In a brief interview, Chester confirmed the split, saying, “I’m no longer the editor at Yes Weekly,” but declined to provide details about who made the decision to part ways, adding that any questions about the paper should be directed to Womack or Jeff Sykes, the news editor who stepped in to take his place. He declined to comment on any questions related to circulation.

On Nov. 4, two issues after Chester was fired or quit, Yes Weekly debuted a new look with adjusted sections, a modified logo and a greater emphasis on arts and entertainment while deemphasizing news.

Jeff Sykes, who joined Yes Weekly soon after Green and I turned in our letters of resignation in late January 2014, declined to comment on Chester’s departure, saying it’s a personnel matter. But he did offer some insight on the paper’s circulation.

“According to the email that I saw that Charles [Womack] sent you, it’s somewhere in the 17,000 to 20,000 range,” Sykes said. He added that he read the email referenced above and discussed the matter with Womack at the time.

“Obviously we discussed what it is you are wondering about,” he said. “I don’t have anything to hide.”

Sykes said that Womack told him there were “maps printed prior to 2010 that had a different number on it.” The only map on Yes Weekly’s site is the one that claimed “43,000 papers distributed free every Wednesday” and which someone scrubbed around the time of Womack’s email. And as for the AAN change, Sykes said: “I think there were outdated materials in the office and I think the AAN had not requested a circulation update in more than five years, is what they said to us.”

But in general, Sykes emphasized that he keeps his nose to the grind, focusing on producing content.

“All I’ve done is focus on interviewing people and writing good stories and getting the paper out on time,” Sykes said.

His attitude bears striking resemblance to Green and Clarey’s explanation of their approach to working at Yes Weekly, and it mirrors how I handled my time there as well.

Sykes either could not or would not provide any specific dates for when circulation may have dropped dramatically. But the industry overall is “in turmoil,” he said, pointing to circulation cuts at a local daily newspaper and describing a “competitive environment” with other weekly newspapers.

Newspaper revenues are “very difficult,” Sykes said, which is part of the reason that Yes Weekly is shifting to an arts and entertainment, or A&E, focus.

“We have sort of felt for a while now that A&E would be a more unique niche,” Sykes said, adding that he’s long been interested in turning Yes Weekly into a more “general interest magazine” and letting other weeklies handle local politics.

The change is a response to the revenue climate, he said, but so far he’s heard an “overwhelmingly positive response” from readers, and he’s “very excited” about the paper’s future.

In his email, Womack offered a similar explanation for the drastic circulation drop, but like Sykes, did not provide any information about when the shift happened.

“I am not sure what your article is about,” Womack wrote, “but if it’s the economy, like everyone else, we have been hurt as well.”

But this explanation begs the question: If circulation has risen and fallen in the last two years, reaching as high as 45,000 and as low as 18,000 (or 17,700) now, were advertisers who pay based on the newspaper’s reach informed?

Sushi Republic advertises in Yes Weekly every other week, manager Andy Russell said. He’s been responsible for the Greensboro restaurant’s ad buys for about two years, and hasn’t seen a change in cost or been informed of a change in circulation, he said.

“We’ve been advertising with them for a fairly long time and we have an agreed-upon rate with them,” Russell said. “I haven’t seen that change in the two years I’ve been here.”

He also said that Sushi Republic started running ads in Yes Weekly before he became the manager, and that he’s never been told any circulation number.

Scott Robinson, the owner at Taylor Tire in Greensboro, also said he’s never been given a circulation number for Yes Weekly, and he hasn’t asked for one either. Robinson said he can’t remember seeing a rate sheet or a circulation number. But he too has been paying the same rate for multiple years and was unaware of any circulation changes.

Taylor Tire and Sushi Republic both advertised in the Aug. 26 and Sept. 23 issues of Yes Weekly, and Taylor Tire also ran an ad in the Oct. 14 issue — all weeks when I documented a print-run invoice of 17,700 copies.

Additional advertisers couldn’t immediately be reached for comment on Monday and Tuesday, save for developer Marty Kotis who ran an ad in the Aug. 26 issue of Yes Weekly and also said he didn’t request a circulation number in part because many of his ads with the paper are trade instead of cash deals.

The newspaper’s three current sales reps couldn’t be reached for comment.

! ! !

There are many terms and numbers in this article. It can be confusing to keep them all straight. But that’s especially because something doesn’t add up.

You might expect this level of confusion from someone outside of the industry, or maybe somebody who didn’t know better. But that isn’t Charles Womack. He became the publisher of the Jamestown News in 1990, according to his LinkedIn page, and founded Yes Weekly in 2004. In 2014, Womack bought Creative Loafing Charlotte, another alternative weekly newspaper, and he acts as publisher. He previously owned the Outer Banks Sentinel, and in February 2015, he became the vice president of Womack Publishing, according to LinkedIn. Womack Publishing, not to be confused with Womack Newspapers Inc., is the family business, based in Chatham, Va., publishing 16 newspapers in North Carolina and Virginia. Womack is a third-generation newspaper owner.

Some people may not understand the difference between distributing 43,000 copies of a newspaper and claiming 43,000 readers based on an average print run of 20,000. Some people might not understand why the circulation number should be so vital for advertisers, or what would be wrong with misrepresenting the figure. Some people could easily find any of this hard to follow. But it wouldn’t make sense for Charles Womack — the vice president of a sizeable newspaper-publishing company who has worked in the family industry for at least 25 years — to be one of them.

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