Like Late Late Show give-aways, newspaper circulation and readership figures invariably seem to have something for everybody in the audience.
The half-yearly figures (to the end of last December), released over recent weeks, generated the usual claims from the national titles, of gains in key sectors at the expense of competitors.
This has become something of an art-form, in which even the most pedestrian performance can be presented as a new triumph.
The professionals – the media buyers in the advertising agencies and the account managers in the PR companies – can cut through the flannel at a glance. They know to look for the key indicators: paid-for circulation; ABC1 profile; age profile; Dublin and urban penetration, and so on.
Yet the game goes on, with extravagant claims often being built on the shakiest of foundations.
So what, if anything, do the figures tell us?
In reality, no one six-month period can tell a lot. It is only when circulation and readership figures are viewed in series that a discernible picture begins to emerge.
It is important to differentiate between circulation and readership.
Circulation is certified by the Audit Bureau of Circulations, effectively an industry-sponsored accountancy function. It measures paid-for sales, as distinct from the number of copies of a publication that have been distributed. It excludes "frees" and "complimentaries."
For many years it did not differentiate between individually-purchased copies and bulk-sales.
For example, newspapers bought at a steep discount by restaurants and then passed on to diners. However in recent years, bulk-sales have had to be shown under a separate heading, albeit as part of the overall certified figure.
Readership, measured through an exercise known as Joint National Readership Survey (JNRS), is a more ephemeral concept. It is based on a survey of the stated reading habits of 7,000 adults across the State. Because it is a survey, rather than an absolute measurement, it has an accepted margin of error, generally taken to be plus or minus two per cent. Thus variations within this range may be regarded as not being "statistically significant".
Many within the publishing industry have doubts about the concept of "readership". Survey respondents are asked to state which publications they have looked at yesterday.
A "reader" may thus be someone who has spent three hours reading a newspaper or someone who has merely glanced at the headlines for a couple of minutes while queuing in the supermarket.
But few publishing professionals will go on the record to criticise the process. For one thing, no viable alternative has yet emerged in the Irish advertising market. For another, it is rarely impossible for an advertising sales manager to find some "good news" for his or her publication in JNRS.
Circulation figures are fairly reliable, especially since it became mandatory to identify bulk-sales.
The Irish Independent and to a lesser extent The Irish Times have always had schemes for bulk-selling. The Independent has favoured restaurants, like McDonalds, or supermarket outlets. The Irish Times has had schemes running in schools.
But circulation figures do not give advertisers the crucial information they need in order to match readership to product. Most advertisers want access to the affluent ABC1 categories of the population and a great many advertisers also want to target certain demographic cohorts. For all its limitations, JNRS – measuring "readership" by socio-economic class, by geographic location, by gender and by age – is the only available and accepted system.
Circulation figures for Irish national newspapers confirm a general condition of stagnant sales for the industry. Readership, in contrast, remains fairly buoyant and all national titles can claim that the most recent JNRS confirms increased readership in at least some sectors.
Newspaper sales worldwide are either in decline or just about holding their own. For most publishers, in most countries, it is a question of struggling to maintain position or, at best, seeking to secure a larger share of a diminishing market.
It is hardly surprising that this should be so. Indeed, newspapers have proven themselves to be remarkably resilient organisms, holding off competition from successive, competing products from radio, through TV to the internet. And Irish newspapers have been among the best performers when measured against world industry trends.
There is a myth that the Irish are among the world's greatest consumers of newspapers. In fact, we come about half way down the league that measures newspaper sales per 1,000 of population. Norway comes at the top, followed by Japan. We come in well below the British and the Americans.
Taking circulation figures as a series, however, from December 2002 to the end of December 2005, it is apparent that most Irish newspaper sales are either static or in decline. All the daily broadsheets have dropped.
The Irish Times is down from 120,000 to 114,000. The Irish Independent, now publishing both in tabloid and broadsheet, has not boosted its overall sale – a disappointment for Independent strategists. The Independent nonetheless saw its readership rise by 15 per cent in the most recent JNRS.
The Sunday Independent sales are down. So too is Ireland On Sunday, in spite of massive marketing and promotion.
Even The Sunday Business Post, whose circulation rise has been impressively steady since the day it was launched more than a decade ago, has now leveled out.
It may be that Irish national newspapers are going to have to get used to new realities in which their sales are shrinking. In this, they would be no different from their counterparts elsewhere.
Even in Scandinavia, where strong circulation and committed readership have long been the norm, there is a recognition that print has probably seen its most palmy days.
Conor Brady is Editor Emeritus of The Irish Times. He is a senior teaching fellow at the Michael Smurfit Graduate School of Business UCD, where he lectures in modern media.