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?
! ! !
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.