Totally upfront about it, the Sun-Times reports that its claim to be the country’s tenth largest newspaper depends on “new rules that allow a newspaper to combine the circulation of its other publications under one brand, and a new model for counting paid and verified circulation.”

For the purposes of the Audit Bureau of Circulations, the Sun-Times = Sun-Times Media, which includes six other daily papers and 33 papers that publish less often. As a result, the Sun-Times can claim a daily circulation of of 419,408 copies. Otherwise, its circulation would be only 251,108.

The new rules make sense, I guess. No one cares about circulation but advertisers, and the aggregate number indicates the size of the audience an advertiser can reach with one buy. Advertisers who have been around a while will remember how big an audience a Sun-Times buy used to guarantee.

In 1987 I had a conversation with Robert Page, who’d been publisher of the Sun-Times under Rupert Murdoch before buying the paper from Murdoch in 1986. Page was recalling the circulation dip he had to deal with when Murdoch took over in early 1984. “We inherited a paper — it had an audited circulation in September of ’83 at about 648,000 daily, five-day average, and we were down to 580-something in February. And it was tough, it was tough.”

The next time the ABC changes its rules, perhaps it will allow daily newspapers to average their present circulation with their circulation 30 years ago. This will yield a number that is meaningless but dignified, allowing papers that cannot bask in their prospects to at least enjoy their heritage.