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.

! ! !

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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