Statistics

The newspaper’s weekly circulation was a closely guarded exaggeration. The circulation manager knew the number, the editorial department knew it, the advertising manager knew it. The newspaper’s circulation was about 2000 copies per week. Now you know.

The pliability of the words “circulation,” “copies,” “newspaper,” and “week” was tested regularly. This is because if the advertisers had been told the 2000-per-week number, they might have asked the newspaper to pay them for the honor of placing their ads; thus, they were given a number 10 times larger. More often than not, they were told that over 20,000 pairs of eyes “saw” any given issue of the newspaper. Actually, in an effort at a specificity that would grant legitimacy, they were given a figure of “21,000 readers.”

The word we used was not “subscribers,” it was “readers,” and I may have been the reason for this taint of honesty: Even though I was the assistant editor, I was given many tasks over my time there in order to learn the newspaper business, and for one week, I placed ad calls. I knew that 21,000 was an exaggeration akin to harvests in Soviet provinces distant from Moscow, so I could not bring myself to repeat it. We did not have 21,000 subscribers, period: We ordered fewer than 5000 copies from the printer each week. But “readers”? I saw people manhandling copies on line at the supermarket only to return them to the newsstand. They counted, right?

So we started to claim 21,000 readers. Each of the four or five communities we covered had populations under 1000, so the only way one could legitimately claim 21,000 anything was by including pets and livestock.

Sometimes, the word was “readership.” We had a “total readership” of 21,000.

(Many of our ads were from the local car dealers, so my pang of an honest twinge was not met with an equal bout of honesty from them. They tended to pay late.)

Our ad manager was remarkably creative with the set of facts that he made up from the facts that we had. It was a case of a “known known” being treated with the delicate hands of a diamond-cutter. If one fact yields 20 different perspectives, many facets, well, then it is no longer one fact: It is 20 facts. Statistics. And facts are knowledge, and knowledge is power, so the more facts one knows, the smarter one is.

And math always grants the deployer of facts a sheen of certitude, or in my case when making the phone calls, the nervous luster of flop sweat.

We started the magical addition with the 2000 paid subscriptions, quite a few of which were free, but whatever, these were 2000 real subscriptions and Shhhhh. The thinking continued: Each house has an average of three members, so we can assume there are more readers right there. Quite a few of our subscriptions went to doctors’ offices, and who knows how many people thumb through an average issue in those, amIright? These two estimates, home and office, brought us up into five-digit figures.

Further, we distributed about three thousand copies to X number of stores and sold quite a few each week through those outlets (in RealityLand, that number varied wildly from week to week). The population in the several counties that these stores were in was Y. Surveying the gas station and grocery store owners at which we sold our newspaper, our ad manager learned their estimates of the average number of customers they deal with each week. Their estimates. Their own exaggerations, I mean, estimates.

Our ad manager hated when we only came up with enough news to produce a one-section paper. The irrefutable logic was that a multi-section newspaper gets split up, doubling or even tripling the potential readership for that issue.

When I look at my page views and metrics on the website here, I sometimes think about my 21,000-circulation newspaper that covered life in a profoundly rural part of the world. Then I remember one fact, one single fact, one statistic, that has never been broken up into 20 different facets or perspectives by anyone: I loved that job. I’m enjoying this life, too.

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This first appeared in October.

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3 comments

  1. loisajay · August 1, 2015

    ‘remarkably creative’……I love those two words combined with ‘statistics.’ Adds a whole new dimension, doesn’t it? Fun post, Mark.

    Liked by 1 person

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