The Real Circulation Numbers for Beijing Newspapers

Newspapers set their advertising rate cards on the basis of their circulation and readership.  As such, so long as circulation and readership are not measured by reliable independent bodies, the temptation is there to exaggerate those figures.  The following is a translation from an Yannan post on circulation figures from Beijing newspapers.  There is no guarantee that this is the truth, either.

[translation]  From a colleague in the business of newspaper distribution, I learned a lot of insider information which are unwritten rules within the industry.  If there is not yet an authoritative organization to determine newspaper circulation, then we will have to use this unofficial channel to open our eyes . For journalism scholars, this is very important.

The newspaper circulation figures from genuine large companies are relatively accurate.  Examples are CCTV Sofres and Sinomonitor [blogger's comment: this is erroneous as CCTV Sofres and Sinomonitor conduct readership surveys and not circulation audits (see Passalong Newspaper Readership).  And this blogger also discloses here that he is a technical consultant for Sinomonitor.)].  Of course, you cannot just look at the "retail sales surveys" that are released because they may be "commissioned" by the newspapers themselves and therefore favor them.

The data from the large companies are based upon samples of individuals, and the result will yield the sum total of retail buyers and subscribers.  This number is the true representation of effective circulation.  They will never depend solely on retail sales.

For total circulation, the data for the Beijing newspapers are as follows:

1. Beijing Evening News: 700,000 (effectively around 600,000) which consists of 450,000 in retail sales and 250,000 in subscription.

2. Beijing Youth Daily: 380,000 (effectively around 350,000) which consists of 20,000 in retail sales, 200,000 in subscription, 50,000 in complimentary copies and 100,000 in national sales

3. Beijing Times: 280,000 (effectively around 280,000) which consists of 200,000 in retail sales and 80,000 in subscription

4. Beijing Morning News: 180,000 (effectively around 160,000) which consists of 30,000 in retail sales and 150,000 in subscription

5. Beijing Legal Mirror: 180,000 (effectively around 170,000) which consists of 170,000 in retail sales and 10,000 in complimentary copies

6. Beijing Star Daily: 180,000 (effectively around 130,000) which consists of 120,000 in retail sales and 60,000 in subscription (note: the retail sales figure is seriously inaccurate!)

7. Beijing News: 80,000-100,000 (effectively 60,000-80,000) which consists of 30,000 in retail sales, 10,000 in subscription and 40,000-60,000 in subscription copies

8. The First: 50,000 (effectively 20,000) which consists of 20,000 in retail sales and 30,000 in complimentary copies

The above figures are within plus or minus 20%.

It is common for newspaper circulation figures to be untrue.  The mainstream media in Beijing may claim to "have mainstream media values", "report everything that can be reported" and "insist on reporting the objective truth" but they will lie and exaggerate about their own circulation figures.  These are the "unwritten rules" or even the "written rules."  This is an embarrassment for the Chinese media which do not operate under any law with respect to this type of information.

Here are the four major ways by which distortions are made:

(1) Claims are made without any basis.

The newspapers make their claim and there is no one who can contradict them.  Examples are the new entrants Beijing News which claims 500,000 and The First which claims 200,000.  They have never achieved those kinds of figures in their entire lives.  Their principle is that if a lie repeated a thousand times becomes the truth.

Of course, the situations of Beijing News and The First are different from each other.  Beijing News has terrible reception in the marketplace, but they are critically acclaimed by the industry professionals since they take the high road.  The First is in a hopeless situation because they entered into a saturated market and they are disadvantaged in terms of content, capital, scale, talents and resources.  Forget it!

The true figures for Beijing News are here: Beijing News prints 80,000 to 100,000 copies, of which 60,000 to 80,000 are effectively distributed.  Of these, 30,000 are retail sales, 10,000 are subscriptions and 40,000-60,000 are complimentary copies (of which 20,000-40,000 are a total waste because they go unread).

But Beijing News still claims to have several hundred thousands of copies, and this shows the will of the senior staff and the persistence of the staff.  Their distribution advantages are: the contents are great, the distribution management is good and the marketing and sales are first-rate in Beijing.  The best part is that after 18 months, they are still as persistent as when they were at the start.  If they had weaker will, they would have closed shop.  While Beijing News' professional spirit is admirable, their exaggeration of their circulation figure and advertising volume is shameless.

The true figures for The First are here: The First prints fewer than 50,000 copies, with an effective circulation of 20,000.  Of these, 20,000 go through retail channels, but effectively only 10,000 are sold; there are 30,000 complimentary copies, of which only 10,000 are effective.

The First was started based upon a unique resource -- it wanted to leverage the Olympics to receive special privileges in China.  But it was unable to get the Olympics name and therefore lost its advantage.  It is a political product that is supported by the government, which will now be burdened by it.

(2) The printed quantity is used as the circulation figure, even though many copies go directly to the garbage collection center

These are the newspapers who have difficulty in the retail sector.  For example, Beijing Evening News did this after Beijing Legal Mirror appeared on the scene.  After Beijing News appeared, the Beijing Star Daily and the Beijing Morning News did the same.  The newspaper requires that the printing plant must certify the number but the distribution department will just use that number.  When a copy is sold, the newspaper gets 20 to 30 cents; even when a copy is not sold, the newspaper can still make 1 or 2 cents by selling it as garbage.

Here are the true figures:

Beijing Evening News prints 700,000 copies (effectively only 600,000), which consists of 450,000 for retail and 250,000 for subscription . Of the retail copies, 50,000 to 100,000 are unsold.

Beijing Star Daily prints 180,000 to 200,000 (effectively only 130,000).  Of these, subscription accounts for 60,000.  Of the 120,000 retail copies, at least one-third is unsold).

Beijing Morning News prints 180,000 (effectively only 160,000).  If it were not for the 130,000 subscriptions, this newspaper would have been out of business.  Of the 50,000 retail copies, at least 20,000 were sold by the distribution center director as garbage.  Among the Beijing newspapers, Beijing Morning News was the first to begin selling their copies as garbage.  Presently, Beijing Star Daily and Beijing Evening News also depend on this approach.  This phenomenon occurs because the distributors were unable to sell the copies but they still need to show good job performance.

(3) Using a single day's circulation for the total period

For example, Beijing Evening News claimed 1,000,000 copies and Beijing Morning News claimed 450,000, all based upon the circulation quantity on the day after September 11, 2001.  As for the newly arrived newspapers, it is common to use the hundreds of thousands printed on the first day as the circulation for the whole period.

(4) Mixing up retail volume and distribution volume in discussion

Beijing Times, Beijing News and Beijing Legal Mirror have all done this.  Among the Beijing newspapers, Beijing Evening News, Beijing Youth Daily and Beijing Morning News all have more than 100,000 subscribers.  In the case of Beijing Youth Daily, the subscription number is ten times the retail sales figure.  However, its small retail number means that it is disadvantaged by other who rely on retail sales.

The true situation is that the only Beijing newspapers with more than 100,000 retail sales are Beijing Evening News, Beijing News and Beijing Legal Mirror.  The only Beijing newspapers with more than 100,000 subscribers are Beijing Youth Daily, Beijing Evening News, Beijing Morning News and Beijing Daily.  All other newspapers have fewer than 100,000 copies.

Related link: Newsstand sales figures for Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou.  By Joel Martinsen.  February 22, 2006.