Before there were managing bodies with the task of determining a newspaper’s true circulation, it was the job of the newspaper’s themselves to report their numbers.
Then as now, advertising was parceled out based on circulation and it was difficult or impossible to know whether a paper was telling the truth about its millions upon millions of subscribers.
I think you see where I am going with this. The stage is California, 1893, the New York Times is reporting,
“California has for years been afflicted with the ‘largest circulation’ mania. Each of the big San Francisco dailies had a greater circulation than all the others combined . . . The fashion of prevarication has so spread in this exuberant climate that every new-born sheet, tossed off by some rattletrap press in a town of more expectations than inhabitants at once laid claim to the largest circulation in all the country side and sent its paint pot and brush out into the world to beslubber the claim over everything of scenic prominence. . . advertisers became bewildered in the effort to pick some bits of truth out of the mass of prevarication. They could not really tell, when they gave out an advertisement to a persistent solicitor, whether or not the paper he represented had anything like the enormous circulation he said it had.”
Their solution was to change the law, adding a statute that made it illegal for publishers to misrepresent circulation in order to make a sale,
Every proprietor or publisher of newspaper or periodical, who shall willfully knowingly misrepresent the circulation of newspaper or periodical, for the purpose of securing advertising or other patronage, shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor.
In 1914 publishers and advertisers took this one step further and created the Audit Bureau of Circulations, whose job is to ensure that circulation, readership and audience information is maintained accurately and that advertisers have a clear idea of what the real value of a newspaper is before investing.
Speaking of advertising, news print can no longer support the advertising models that it was built on. At the very least, American newspapers can’t, but in other countries print consumption is on the rise – listen to Patrick Dixon as he tells the story of India.