A Circulation ‘Nostradamus’ Looks in the Crystal Ball Again

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By: Jay Schiller

More than seven years ago, I wrote an article called ?Circulation ?Body Fat?? that appeared in Editor & Publisher on February 14, 1998. It dealt with ?other? circulation years before that title was even being used. I even made the suggestion that ?junk circulation? such as employee copies, NIE and hotel single copy/bulk all be relegated to the bottom of the Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC) reports and accounted for separately.

Being a circulation Nostradamus, it came to pass. And now Deutsche Bank, Prudential and other financial establishments are doing detailed reports analyzing the circulation composition of newspapers, assaying the fat content.

Even further back, I wrote an article for E & P stating two future certainties: one, that the home run record of Roger Maris would fall and, two, the 50% discounting line for paid circulation would suffer a mighty setback. Again, I was right.

While I?m not tooting my own horn (well, maybe just a little), I have one more prediction for the newspaper industry: Paid circulation, at least as we know it, will eventually die a peaceful death. To say that paid circulation is an oxymoron like ?jumbo shrimp? might be a stretch but the stretch is getting smaller and smaller.

What once distinguished paid circulation from unpaid or free distribution was something called money. An individual would take some coins out of his or her pocket and put it in a rack or give it to someone behind a counter in exchange for the newspaper. Or, an individual would give someone some cash at his or her door or send in a check to the newspaper in exchange for home delivery.

For the first 75 years or so of ABC?s existence, this seemed to work pretty well. Then USA Today came along and started distributing hundreds of thousands of copies per day to hotels, not directly to individuals. A circulation category that had previously been gathering dust, namely ?bulk,? suddenly was brought to life. And instead of being hidden on the second page of ABC reports, it started appearing on the front page.

But even this wasn?t enough. Rules were created to insinuate these hotel copies into the ?individually paid? club via obscure and largely unread disclaimers on hotel registration cards. Circulation directors used the same approved reasoning to sneak individually paid copies by unsuspecting consumers by hiding the cost of the newspaper in the purchase price of other products and services, including parking and tickets for events. Some circulation executives made careers out of this.

While Barry Bonds? claim that he wasn?t aware that he was doing steroids is a subject of great debate, there is no question that millions of people can legitimately make the claim that at some point they didn?t know they had paid for a newspaper.

ABC has attempted to address this confusion by moving much of this circulation below the line that separates individually paid from other circulation. Still, advertisers have spent the better part of the last decade paying for other circulation wearing individually paid clothing.

The bottom line is that in many cases, readership has been declining much faster than paid circulation. It?s not uncommon for a newspaper to hold or even increase its overall paid circulation numbers while at the same time having fewer people actually reading the newspaper. Despite all the negative attention of the past year, analysis of the latest Fas-Fax shows that other paid is STILL growing.

So this brings us plainly to the current importance of readership. ABC is now auditing readership reports.

Radio and television don?t calculate viewership or listening audience based on how many radios and televisions are sold. They calculate audiences based on the numbers listening or watching. Silent radios and blank TVs have absolutely no benefit for those advertising with those media (even if the radios and TVs are in hotel rooms). And that?s why it is inevitable that newspapers and advertisers will increase their efforts to turn to readership for truer, effective metrics.

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