Day By Day: FAS-FAX Breaks It All Out

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By: Jennifer Saba

A publisher’s statement may be chock full of data, but it’s never been known for its ease of use. “That is advertisers’ No. 1 gripe,” says David Dadisman, who chairs an Audit Bureau of Circulations committee and serves as vice president of circulation at The Washington Post. “The publisher’s statement is too hard to read.”

The problem stems in part from papers having too much flexibility in reporting daily circulation averages. Like smearing Vaseline on a camera lens, publishers can present their numbers in the most flattering light. They can report numbers for Monday through Tuesday, Wednesday through Friday, Monday through Saturday, or any number of possible combinations. The arrangements also can be changed, making year-over-year comparisons a real headache.

This fall however, things will be different. The Audit Bureau will unveil a new publisher’s statement format that requires papers to report circulation on a daily basis. For the six-month period ending September 2005, about half of all newspapers filing with ABC will be using the new design, pictured at right for the first time.

The idea had been considered for several years, says Scott Hanson, ABC’s senior vice president of auditing. But it gained traction in the wake of the 2004 circulation scandals and the ensuing calls for more transparency.

The new publisher’s statement will list each day’s core circulation from Monday through Sunday, as well as a Monday-through-Friday average to match the readership number. There’s an optional ninth column where newspapers can cherry-pick their best cumulative average, as well as a separate line for electronic editions and “unique editions” which, in the case of the Chicago Tribune, for example, could be used for RedEye.

The Washington Post’s Dadisman, who also chairs the Newspaper Association of America/ABC circulation subcommittee, says that most newspapers have been amenable to the idea, although concerns were voiced in smaller markets. Newspapers with a circulation of 25,000 or under have the option of using the day-of-week format. However, if a paper shows a fluctuation of 15% or more on any given day, it has to break out that circ number separately to prevent any skewing. Another exception: Publishers can report unsold copies using a weighted average.

The printed FAS-FAX will not appear any different from past reports; it will still show Sunday circulation and a daily average. The Excel version, however, will break out the days of the week. “We didn’t want to turn the [print] FAS-FAX into the Yellow Pages,” says Hanson.

Advertisers believe the new report will be relief for bleary eyes. “It’s a real plus, and a positive move for the industry,” says Merle Davidson, director of media services at JC Penney Corp. and an ABC board member. “It really gives us greater visibility, especially when we advertise multiple days.”

Until now, publishers were capable of providing advertisers specific daily averages if requested, but those numbers weren’t vetted by ABC. Also, they weren’t net-averaged paid, Davidson notes, adding, “That’s something we strive for.”

The real test will be how much advertisers use this information to try to squeeze ad rates. Bryan Jackson, director of newspaper investment at OMD in Atlanta, is keeping a close watch. He places millions of dollars in newspapers with accounts like Cingular and Johnson & Johnson. “Realistically, it won’t impact us until next year,” he says, adding that he has already set contracts in place. “We are certainly curious to see the difference.”

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