E-Editions: The New ?Other? Circ?

By: Mark Fitzgerald

Through the 1980s and 1990s, as organic circulation such as home delivery and single-copy sales sagged, many metro dailies responded by building up circ that was classified as “other paid circulation”: Bulk sales, hotel tie-ins, and Newspaper In Education (NIE) were favorites for propping up numbers.

But when advertisers and analysts began to disparage this so-called “junk circulation” — and newsprint prices made printing copies more expensive — newspapers spent the next decade chopping away at their “other” sales. An E&P analysis by circulation consultant Jay Schiller shows that between 2005 and 2010, some papers nearly dropped it entirely. At The Dallas Morning News, for instance, the “other” category, which had accounted for nearly 44,000 copies of its 612,000 daily circulation, dropped by 98% this year.

The latest FAS-FAX report from the Audit Bureau of Circulations, though, prompts the question: Are e-editions the new “other-paid circulation?”

Schiller, for one, thinks so. The former ABC auditor says that replicas and other electronic editions that can be counted as paid made a difference in overall circulation numbers — and had a huge impact on some individual newspapers.

The widely reported number was that overall Sunday circulation in the reporting period was down 6.5%, an improvement on the 7.5% decline a year ago. But strip out the e-editions, Schiller’s analysis shows, and Sunday actually declined 7.9%, slightly worse than in 2009.

In a reporting period that saw all 25 top-selling daily and Sunday newspapers report circulation declines, there were numerous examples of paper reporting gains or small declines — on steep increases in reported e-edition sales. And in many cases, the e-editions were nearly entirely the result of copies going to NIE programs.

The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, to take one newspaper, was ranked seventh among the top e-edition users with a reported 46,547 circulation. All but 179 of those e-editions were NIE copies.

NIE is a valuable classroom program at all levels of schooling that can help engrain a newspaper reading habit. The problem is, advertisers generally aren’t interested in paying to reach those students.

The big effect NIE copies can have on lifting paid circulation was actually a little discomfiting for the Naples (Fla.) Daily News, which ABC listed as the fastest-gaining daily above 50,000 circulation based on its 21.8% jump in circ.

“It’s not something we’re pounding our chest about,” says Don Hornbeck, senior director of circulation in Florida for Daily News parent E.W. Scripps. “We’re getting a little embarrassed about all the attention.” The spike in circ was entirely due to an arrangement to provide e-editions, paid for by a third-party, to the Collier County public schools system. Daily News print circulation actually declined 9.5% from a year ago Monday through Friday and 5.3% on Sundays.

 “They use the papers and we have a very good relationship with the school system and the principals in the school, but as far as giving value for our advertisers, it’s really not there,” says Hornbeck. The paper isn’t using the suddenly higher number to market to advertisers, he adds: “It just so happens that [e-editions] fall under net paid.”

E-editions will continue to be counted as paid circulation when ABC reporting forms change in October. But the new rules that will govern reporting will eliminate any possibility that e-editions will become like “other paid” circ of old, says John Murray, vice president of audience development for the Newspaper Association of America. The rules, which should be adopted next month, will let advertisers see very clearly who are buying — or getting, at no cost to them — e-editions.

But even now, e-editions are not that big a deal in the scheme of things, Murray argues. “Once you take out The Wall Street Journal and Detroit, it represents a really small slice of circulation,” he says. The Detroit Free Press and Detroit News last year discontinued home delivery four days a week, but provide e-editions to subscribers on those days.

Indeed, an analysis of 546 Sunday newspapers for E&P shows electronic circ represents just 2.7% of total circulation. Some 206 Sunday papers reported no e-editions, and another 93 fewer than 100 electronic copies. Another analysis shows newspapers may miss this electronic “other” come late this year: of 11 papers that reported gaining more than 11.6% over last year, nine lost print circulation.

 

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Published: June 11, 2010

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