The Honolulu Star-Advertiser says its print circulation remains steady and is higher than either of the city’s two papers “before” they became one.

Even if true — and yes, the numbers are higher than before consolidation — is that something to boast about?

When a city goes from two papers to one, you’d expect that the circulation of the new paper would be higher than the circulation of either paper alone before they consolidated. That’s what happened in Denver, where I was editor and publisher of the Rocky Mountain News, which closed in February 2009.

The Denver Post, the surviving paper, reported that it retained 86 percent of the Rocky’s home-delivery customers. Its daily circulation for the first reporting period after it became the city’s only paper went from about 210,000 to 340,949.

The circulation of The Honolulu Advertiser was audited by the industry-standard organization, the Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC). The Advertiser’s final audit for the 52 weeks ended March 28, 2010 showed circulation of 124,667 on Sunday and 111,720 on weekdays.

The Honolulu Star-Bulletin wasn’t audited by ABC. So verifiable figures are harder to come by. The number used for the Star-Bulletin varied, from 37,000 to 55,000.

The latest audited figures for the Star-Advertiser are for the three-month period ending Dec. 31, 2010. They show the paper’s Sunday circulation as 130,757 and its daily circulation as 117,885.

Those figures are an increase of 6,090 Sunday and 6,165 daily over the Honolulu Advertiser’s final audited numbers.

But let’s put that into some context.

To start, we’ll discount the Star-Bulletin’s circulation numbers to 30,000, much lower than the 37,000 and the 55,000 figures that were used publicly. That gives the new paper the benefit of the doubt when looking at how the market has shaped up.

Using the 30,000 number for the Star-Bulletin’s circulation, the Star-Advertiser would have retained about 20 percent of the paper’s customers. Worst case for the Star-Advertiser, if the 55,000 figure used by the authoritative Associated Press were correct, the paper would have retained about 11 percent of the Star-Bulletin’s customers.

The bottom line is this: Two titles that had a combined Sunday circulation of somewhere between 148,000 and 173,000 and a combined daily circulation of 141,000 and 166,000 have been replaced by a single publication with circulation that is at best 13 percent lower than the two on Sundays and 16 percent lower daily.

But it could be as bad as 24 percent lower on Sunday and 29 percent lower on weekdays.

The circulation story only gets worse if you look at what’s happened to the audited circulation of Honolulu’s top-selling newspaper since 2006.

If we go back to the calendar quarter ended June 25, 2006 — essentially five years ago — the Sunday total for the Advertiser was 156,288. The daily number was 140,076.

Even without taking the Star-Bulletin’s questionable numbers into account, the circulation of the Star-Advertiser today is 25,531 lower on Sunday and 22,191 lower daily.

Now, it’s true that print circulation is declining everywhere. And a 16 percent decline isn’t so bad compared to what papers have seen in other markets.

But that comparison doesn’t take into account the closing of another newspaper, with anywhere from 37,000 to 55,000 circulation.

Yes, the Star-Advertiser’s audited numbers are higher than the audited numbers of the Advertiser.

But that’s not saying much.

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