Today’s New York Times shines a spotlight on a dirty little secret in the newspaper industry that’s actually not all that little.

Across the country each week, more than 1.6 million people who are not on newspaper subscriber rolls are being delivered copies that did not cost them a cent — but they are still being classified as paying customers, an analysis by The New York Times has found.

According to the Times, the papers, which at least officially are paid for by advertisers, are delivered by small and large dailies across the country, including The Miami Herald, The Wall Street Journal, The San Jose Mercury News and The Boston Globe.

But the newspaper that would seem to make the most flagrant use of the practice is our very own Denver Post. The Times story leads thusly:

Marie Kurth does not subscribe to The Denver Post, but that did not stop the paper from being tossed haphazardly in front of her century-old red-brick home each Sunday beginning in October.

“It was everywhere. It was on the walk, it was on the public walk, in the yard, and that I don’t care for,” said Ms. Kurth, who is 81 and lives in northwest Denver.

After six weeks of unwelcome deliveries, Ms. Kurth said, she called the Denver Newspaper Agency, which manages The Post and The Rocky Mountain News, to put a stop to the papers.

Ms. Kurth’s experience is hardly unique. On an average Sunday, more than 100,000 copies of The Post — more than 1 of every 8 printed — are delivered to homes in Colorado that did not request or pay for them.

Because of a rule-change in how newspaper circulations are audited, these unsolicited deliveries are allowed to be counted as paid circulation. Paid circulation figures, in turn, are then used to set advertising rates. According to the Times, these practices mask circulation losses that have been adding up for more than a decade.

The Rocky Mountain News wasn’t included in the Times‘ analysis because it doesn’t publish a Sunday edition. But, as we wrote back in November, both of Denver’s dailies have suffered staggering circulation losses since merging in 2001 — in spite of so-called third-party sales.

Making matters worse was the revelation that even when newspapers claim the unsolicited deliveries were paid for by advertisers, the truth is often less clear. For example, American Furniture Warehouse last year sponsored the delivery last year of 30,000 papers to homes surrounding a new store.

The Post described this particular sale as “a cash transaction,” but when contacted by the Times, American Furniture’s marketing chief said that description was “not exactly accurate.”

Post publisher Dean Singleton defends his paper’s circulation practices:

“Once this became the rule,” Mr. Singleton said, “we took the position, ‘Hey, it’s the rule and we’re going to use it.’ “

Daniel Brogan
Daniel Brogan
Daniel Brogan is the founder, CEO, and Editor-in-Chief of 5280 Publishing, Inc.