Playing with the numbers: Yes Weekly’s changing circulation

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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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