San Luis Obispo Tribune’s wildly varied circulation numbers

Joe Tarica

For a journalism contest, the San Luis Obispo Tribune’s circulation was less than 15,000. For advertisers, the Tribune’s readership is more than 122,000.

On its website, the Tribune is reporting 27,408 in daily circulation and readership of 68,520 which means the newspaper is saying an average of two and a half people read each day’s edition. But the newspaper’s media kit, used to give advertisers an idea of how many people their Tribune advertising will reach, puts daily readership at 122,220.

It’s an important question for businesses considering where to spend their advertising dollars: How many copies does the Tribune actually sell and how many people read the paper and the online editions?

As a way to prop up a wheezing industry’s declining advertising revenues, some publishers promote their publication’s estimated readership instead of actual circulation numbers. Circulation refers to the number of copies distributed in print and online subscribers while readership is a multiplication of that number based on an assumption that additional people read each publication, usually reported as two to five readers per copy.

The Tribune’s fortunes have waned over the years. Access to news on the Internet and public choices for other news sources, most notably Facebook, have reduced the numbers of readers of newspapers across the United States, including the Tribune. Online sources, including LexisNexis, put the Tribune’s circulation at between 38,000 to 40,000 copies a day from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s.

In its yearly report to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filed in March, McClatchy, the Tribune’s parent company, reported the Tribune’s average daily circulation in 2018 as 17,709.

The Tribune’s circulation number appears to have ranged down even lower as the newspaper entered a journalism competition run by the California Newspaper Association. The Tribune editorial staff entered the under-15,000 circulation division and won that category’s first place award for general excellence.

When asked to clarify the Tribune’s circulation, Editor Joe Tarica said their current circulation falls under 15,000. With a reported readership of 122,220 and Tarica’s number, the Tribune would have to have each newspaper read by slightly more than 8 people.

The Alliance for Audited Media (AAM) is the company that’s supposed to keep the newspapers honest about circulation. Four times a year, the Tribune provides AAM a detailed circulation report that includes the average number of printed copies purchased, the number of printed copies given away, and the number of online paid subscribers. And, about every two years, AAM conducts an audit to confirm the publisher’s reports are accurate. The Tribune’s last audited report, which covered a 24 month period ending in Sept. 30, 2016, verified a total daily circulation of 25,718, including printed papers and online subscribers.

In the Tribune’s latest quarterly report to AAM, for the first quarter of 2019, the Tribune reported a total daily circulation of 16,267, which included 11,123 printed papers and 5,144 digital subscribers.

In response to questions about the Tribune’s different readership and circulation numbers, Tarica said variances in the numbers are because of the dates the numbers were pulled and different products included in the numbers. He refused to specify what publication dates and products where used to develop the Tribune’s varied circulation reports.

“Readership and circulation are different numbers, and there are many products that fall under different reports,” Tarica said. “Variances in numbers can occur based on the time frame pulled or the type of products included in the reports.”

Tarica also said that the Tribune was entered in the correct category for the CNPA contest.