Counting pages at the L.A. Times

You may think the Los Angeles Times is shrinking in print, but don't let your eyes deceive you. This Sunday's LAT was 368 pages fatter than a week before, if you believe what the paper published in the front page flag. "1180 pages," the Times claimed -- compared to "just" 828 the Sunday before. That's so much better than Sunday, March 16, when the paper was only 565 pages. Or April 24, when it was 524 pages — before the paper began slashing its content.

Confused? You should be. For Times readers, the claim of more pages is bogus. The paper is shrinking, in pages of news and pages of ads printed in the paper. Almost a thousand of the so-called "pages" in Sunday's Times were not on newsprint. They were color ad brochures and leaflets printed elsewhere and stuffed in the newspaper bag for delivery. The big jump this past Sunday, I guess, was due to a 374-page Ikea catalog included with the paper. It's apparently newspaper business practice to count these unrelated ads as Times pages. If you feel a little deceived, it gets worse.

A week ago, editor Russ Stanton published a note in the Sunday paper assuring readers that day's LAT was, at 828 pages, bigger than that day's New York Times. He didn't tell readers he was counting the pre-print ads, or that he was comparing the full LAT to the pared-down national edition of the NYT. (Or as he later expressed to me, that he counted just 144 pages with actual LAT editorial content on them.) I've heard a fair bit of derision aimed at Stanton for that note, focusing on his misleading of his readers. The former editor of another Los Angeles newspaper called him on it in an email to me, and I asked Stanton to explain. He agreed. Their emails are after the jump.

First, from the ex-editor:

Russ Stanton’s letter today about the cutbacks caught my eye with its assertion the paper had “more than 800 pages” and is the largest Sunday edition of any newspaper in America west of the Mississippi. (Let’s put aside the fact that many of us get the NYT on Sunday on our doorstep right here in LA.)

So, I counted the pages in the LAT today.

The paper has 529 pages at its most generous counting. Again, please check me if you use this, but it’s shocking to me that the editor of a newspaper wrote a letter to its treasured readers asserting they are getting 250 pages more than they are.

The rough breakdown of the 529 pages in today’s LA Times is 170 pages in editorial sections (including Comics and Parade) and 359 pages of ads in dedicated sections for coupons, classifieds, jobs, real estate ads etc.

Taking it a step further, there are actually only 92.5 pages of editorial copy in the entire newspaper (putting aside 20 pages of Parade, which is counted in the 170 pages of editorial, so I guess I should say 112.5 pages of editorial of 529 pages to be consistent).

In addition to the question of how the editor can baldly state his paper has 800 pages – when it is far short of that – this also raises the question of how a newspaper whose editorial content is roughly 21 percent editorial versus 79 percent for ads can be failing so miserably.

Just some questions. Admittedly it’s an old-fashioned practice, but there’s a big difference between telling readers they’re getting 800 pages, when they are getting just 529, only 112.5 pages of which is editorial, counting generously.

Stanton's explanation:

The 800+ plus number is all-in, meaning everything that came in the plastic bag that landed on your porch or in your driveway on Sunday morning. The count comes from our edition planning department, and that number runs on the front page every day of the week.

In Sunday's paper, I counted 144 pages of editorial content that we produced, vs. 128 in the New York Times. These are the traditional sections printed on newsprint, and the number that I like to focus on. And as you know, that page count is a function of the amount of advertising that our advertising department sells, not what we're able to produce in editorial.

In the first week of our smaller size, we were bigger than the NYT national edition -- which is the paper that people living in Southern
California get -- every day but one. Missing from the conversations outside of our building is some badly needed context about the changes that we and other news organizations have been making as we try to battle our way of the current downturn. We're still publishing one of largest papers in terms of page count, if not THE largest, in the country.

As you know from having worked here, going back to the days of Otis, we have been the largest Sunday newspaper in the country, in good times and bad, and that unit of measure has always been the total number of pages published, in house and out.

Stanton followed up with an email clarifying that his count of 144 pages was for the LAT's Valley edition and the NYT count was for the slimmer national edition. My view is the LAT can count pages any way it choose, but don't mislead readers. I doubt any Times subscribers dismayed at the paper's recent cutbacks feel better because the Sunday numbers were padded by an Ikea catalog.

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