By: Tim Sohn
The complexities of the modern media landscape pose a number of challenges to advertisers and publishers seeking an objective measurement of a newspaper’s audience. Moreover, it’s not so much about the number of readers, but how engaged they are in the content and how they chose to receive that content. With readership migrating to online and mobile distribution, the Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC) has made significant rule changes, which took effect with the May 3 release of the semiannual FAS-FAX reports, to reflect the advancements in content distribution.
The current reports cover the six-month period ending March 31. In prior reports, the top-line metric has been “Total Paid Circulation.” This category no longer exists on ABC reports. The new top-line number is “Total Average Circulation,” which consists of a publication’s paid and verified print and digital editions. Total average circulation also includes any paid and verified branded editions.
Mike Lavery, president and managing director of ABC, told Editor & Publisher that discussions on modifying the reports began in mid-2008 after it became clear that digital platforms, as well as branded editions, were becoming increasingly important for newspapers. The ABC board met with a task force of publishers, advertisers, and agencies to come to an agreement on the new standards for qualifying and reporting newspaper media, and an Oct. 1, 2010 implementation date was set.
ABC took a page from its consumer magazine division, which successfully adopted the verified circulation category in 2006.
“It (verified circulation) was largely accepted and used by media buyers and publishers. It’s intuitive for them, and it doesn’t prohibit, in this case, newspaper publishers from continuing to receive revenues from things like sponsorships, as an example, but simply eliminates the need for ABC to audit against a financial trail on certain categories of circulation,” Lavery said. “So, the verified circulation category largely reclasses what was ‘other paid circulation’ into verified. But it expands it a little bit too to include a couple new categories that really speak to provide, I think, a very good example of the board’s support of how publishers are going to market, and that is targeting certain geographies and targeting certain demographies.”
The verified category includes much of what used to be called “other paid circulation,” as well as what the ABC defines as “requested copies,” which can be paid or unpaid. According to Lavery, this “wantedness” is important to media buyers, advertisers, and marketers seeking to reach engaged consumers. This is the first reporting period that there is not a link between paying for the newspaper and calculating total circulation.
“If somebody doesn’t pay for something, it doesn’t necessarily mean that circulation or distribution isn’t important to media buyers. It is. However, they need to have the transparency and reporting for it.”
Lavery said many newspapers are now printing branded editions, and these are now counted separately on ABC reports. This is meant to provide an extra layer of accountability and transparency for the publications that many advertisers are already supporting. Branded editions also let the newspaper report its total media footprint in a particular market.
“So, for example, in Dallas, they have two very high-profile publications beyond The Dallas Morning News. That includes Briefing, as well as a Spanish-language publication, Al Día. The advertisers are given accountability through the inclusion of these two branded editions in the ABC statement,” Lavery said. “The circulation is broken out in the distribution circulation category.”
The inclusion of branded editions in the top-line metric of total average circulation is a boon to papers such as the San Jose Mercury News, which got bumped into the top five for both daily and Sunday editions, and the Chicago Sun-Times, whose net combined audience (print and online) is up a whopping 48 percent over last year.
In addition, Lavery said reporting of digital editions (previously called e-editions) now has more detailed information, including the type of platform used to access the digital content. Digital editions are divided into two categories: replica editions — which maintain the core content, layout, and advertising of the print product — and nonreplica editions — which maintain the basic identity of the newspaper, but do not need to have the exact look of the print product. The nonreplica editions category is where publishers report Web content that is restricted behind a paywall, as well as tablet, e-reader, and mobile access.
“So, when one steps back and looks at it, it is a very big step forward in terms of reporting a much more comprehensive view of a newspaper’s brand and distribution as well as distribution by platform,” Lavery said. “Newspapers and media are being consumed in not only new digital ways but by a greater and increasing number of mobile and digital platforms. This allows newspapers the opportunity to demonstrate that they reach their audience and therefore their advertisers’ audiences in these ways, and so I think that’s very significant for newspapers as well.”
Rick Edmonds, media business analyst for the Poynter Institute, said the circulation rule changes make sense. “It’s realistic and kind of forward-looking at what the business is developing into. The notion that paid circulation is the bottom line or the top line, I guess is the more accurate way of saying it, but I think it’s dated,” he said.
Edmonds said it’s important to remember that ABC is made up of both media buyers and publishers. “And as a general rule, the advertising community wants more information, not less. The more stuff is broken out, the more detail and depth there is, the better it is for them,” he said.
Because of the many changes that have been enacted, both the ABC and the Newspaper Association of America have advised against trying to draw any meaningful comparisons between the current FAS-FAX reports to those that were released for the same period one year ago. Edmonds said the real value of these reports lies not in comparison to the past, but in setting a baseline for the future.
“There are quite a number of changes in rules, and they haven’t all been instituted this particular time. They have been phased in over the last couple years. So, when you have those two things together, you have results that really are not comparable,” he said. “What we really have is the new baseline way of measuring all this, and a year from now we’ll be able to see what’s up and coming.”
The Poynter analyst said he thinks there will be even more changes on the horizon. “A couple of things figure into this. For instance, the Sunday Select products and other distribution of ad supplements. That wasn’t much of a factor a few years ago, but it’s caught on in quite a few places,” Edmonds said. “And I think undoubtedly there will be several new things in the next several years that may be worth monitoring as well.”
As publishers and advertisers make sense of the new standards for measuring audience size and engagement, news industry analyst Ken Doctor may have offered the best summation of industry sentiment on his blog, Newsonomics: “Trying to understand the difference between the old report and the new report is best done either dead sober or after a six-pack; anywhere in between may leave you wanting.”
Tim Sohn is a 10-year veteran of the news business, specializing in online innovations. He most recently served as editor of LH! Weekly newspaper in northwestern New Jersey, a start-up paper that folded in May. He can be reached at email@example.com.