Bored of Estimates

Our 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. And now you know it, too.

The pliability of the words “circulation,” “copies,” “newspaper,” and “week” was tested with every ad sales phone call. This is because if we told an advertiser the (correct) 2000-per-week number, that advertiser might have asked us to pay them for the honor of placing their ads; thus, our ad sales manager gave them 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 a laudable effort at a specificity that would grant our numbers 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 faint 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 the harvest reported by Soviet provinces distant from Moscow, so I could not bring myself to speak it. We did not have 21,000 subscribers, and that was that. My foot stamped the ground, if not in reality, in my mind and ego. The fact was we ordered fewer than 5000 copies from the printer each week, so if 21,000 readers wanted to look at our work, 19,000 of them would be forced to read over an actual subscriber’s shoulders. But “readers”? Hoo-kay. It was presented to me that I often saw people manhandling copies on line at the supermarket only to return them to the newsstand. Those people read, right? They were readers. They saw the paper and its ads.

(There is a reason our ad sales department manager was in his field and I was in mine. He was a good salesman, and until this moment, two decades later, I had not quite grasped how brilliantly he handled me.)

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 readers, or 21,000 of anything, was by including pets, livestock and, possibly, ghosts. We may as well have claimed a million-dy.

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 of almost-detectable regret 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. If one fact yields 20 facts and you know them all, you are full of smart.

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

How did we argue, er, calculate our way from 2000 to 21,000? We started the magical addition with the 2000 paid subscriptions, quite a few of which were actually free subscriptions, but whatever, these were 2000 real subscriptions and Shhhhh. The thinking with our brains continued: Each house has an average of three members, so we can assume there are more readers right there. One copy = three “readers.” Further, quite a few of our subscriptions (many of them of the gratis variety) 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 each week 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 dealt with each week. Their estimates. Their own exaggerations, I mean, estimates.

There was at least one county in which we sent copies to only one gas station, thus allowing us to include that county. I facetiously suggested one day that on my next trip to Manhattan I would drop a copy in Grand Central Station, so we could count New York City in our 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. Sometimes that is the only fact that matters.

* * * *
Some of this anecdote first appeared in 2014.

The WordPress Daily Prompt for May 14 asks us to reflect on the word, “Underestimate.”

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