Circulation Report: Analysis of Latest Figures from the ABC

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By: Tim Sohn

The Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC) released its biannual FAS-FAX report May 1, reflecting rule changes first enacted in 2011 that include separate reporting of branded editions, and more in-depth digital-edition reporting. This report is the first one that allows media buyers, planners, and publishers to make direct year-over-year comparisons since the rule changes went into effect.

According to Mike Lavery, president of ABC, key takeaways from the report include not only increased digital consumption by consumers, but newspapers offering more and more digital products on a variety of platforms.

The FAS-FAX circulation report, which reflects topline numbers for the six months ending March 31, shows that digital circulation made up an average of 14.2 percent of all news publishers’ counted products, up from 8.66 percent in March 2011. Digital circulation includes native tablet or smartphone apps, metered or restricted-access websites, and e-reader editions. It counts replica and non-replica editions separately. While replicas must include the same advertising, layout, and editorial content as the print product, non-replicas may have different content and advertising.

The report also found that circulation of branded editions encompassed 4.5 percent of newspapers’ total average circulation, an increase of 1.14 percent. Branded editions include commuter, community, alternative- language, or Sunday-Select type newspapers. They must be published at least weekly and have a different name than the flagship newspaper.

Sunday circulation was up five percent for the 532 papers reporting comparable data. The Dallas Morning News saw the biggest Sunday circulation increase, at 87.38 percent. The Houston Chronicle was the second biggest mover with an increase of 55.95 percent, followed by The New York Times with a 49.56 percent increase, San Antonio Express-News with a 38.67 percent increase, and Newsday, which increased Sunday circulation by 36.77 percent.

In Dallas, the Morning News initiated its subscriber content strategy in March 2011, requiring either a digital subscription or an existing print subscription authenticated to allow digital access to view proprietary content. Publisher and chief executive officer Jim Moroney said readers who pay for digital access are more likely to become lifelong customers. “The retention rate for existing subscribers who authenticate their subscription in order to get access to everything we distribute digitally is 30 percent higher than existing subscribers who have not authenticated,” Moroney said.

“The retention rate for new subscribers who authenticate is running 100 percent higher than the retention rate for new subscribers who do not authenticate.”

Lavery said readers find coupons valuable, especially in this economy.

“I think a continued challenging economy for consumers drives them to be value-focused, and value reflects itself in the ability to take our members’ newspapers and be able to extract value from them by way of coupons and other information that they would use as informed consumers,” he said.

According to Houston Chronicle president John O’Loughlin, his paper has intentionally made Sunday a priority.

“We have set our Sunday audience as a top priority, and we are more committed than ever in making our content available when, how, and where consumers are looking for information. We are proud to be a neighbor in this great region, and based on these most current circulation and readership results, it’s clear Houston is placing its faith in us to deliver,” he said.

So, how do newspaper publishers like the FAS-FAX rule changes? Lavery said publishers find the new format helpful because it reflects circulation of all their products, not just print.

“Media buyers like it, of course, because it provides the transparency that they need by channel, and the inclusion of branded editions is not to be overlooked, because it allows now, in some cases for the first time, these publications to be audited by ABC, where they have not heretofore been audited by ABC. And then, of course, presented on a single document in a single report for media buyers to take a look at. So, there is good response from our membership about it,” he said, adding that ABC is constantly reviewing the “evolutionary” document.

The bureau has committees of media buyers and publisher executives who discuss the FAS-FAX on the board level and how the report might evolve in the future. For example, Lavery said the board may take action at its next meeting in July regarding qualification standards for digital editions, both replica and nonreplica. Right now, there are certain rules that apply for digital editions that are sold in bundles. The board is looking at whether higher frequency of user access should be required to be designated as “qualified” in reported circulation.

The ABC board is also considering requiring quarterly reporting of print information such as circulation and distribution by ZIP code, and monthly reporting for digital editions for its consolidated media report.

“It is reflective of the marketplace and the trends of the marketplace that are seeing more demands for more timely reporting of information, more frequent reporting of information, and to reflect those changes in the marketplace, ABC is changing its reporting requirements and the data that we report,” said Lavery, who explained that due to logistics, the new total consumer accounts metric, which reflects the number of sales transactions (net subscriber number), is not included in the May 1 report. However, it will be included in the next one, which will be released Sept. 30.

For the list of top 25 daily, Sunday, and digital newspapers, click here.

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