A cynic might say that the newspaper industry has found an ingenious way to stop the discouraging news every six months of continuing deep circulation losses -- change how total circulation is calculated.
When a series of Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC) rule changes
and a new report format are in place for the six-month reporting period ending March 31, 2011, most newspapers are likely to report a higher total than they would have under the old rules -- and are certain to have a number that cannot be easily compared. Nor will there be any intelligible way to say whether industry-wide circulation is up or down.
But sunnier headlines are not really the point, according to those who have worked on the changes, announced by ABC earlier this week.
The new report format [PDF]
begins by redefining "paid" and "verified" circulation and breaks each into subcategories. There are also totals for electronic replica editions, mobile
, readership both of print and online, and total reach (essentially getting at unduplicated additional audience brought in via digital formats).
The result is a bunch of numbers among which advertisers may pick in evaluating ad buys. Broadly, the changes catch up with the shift most newspaper organizations have made from a single dominant product to an array of print and digital offerings. There is also space to report distribution of free tabloids for those papers offering them.
"Journalistic convention," has continued to be to report a single paid circulation number, John Murray, vice president of audience development for the Newspaper Association of America, said in a phone interview. But that number is becoming less and less relevant in its summary form to advertisers, he said. (Advertisers have equal representation with publishers on the ABC governing board).
An insert advertiser will want to know the total number of copies distributed but may also tailor an order by ZIP code. A run-of-the-paper advertiser would care more about a readership total and the demographics of those readers. An advertiser buying a print-digital combo will want to know about total reach.
The new rules do give papers some latitude to push up numbers with bargain pricing and free trial subscriptions. "Paid" now means that an individual paid something -- but that could be as little as a penny a copy. Hotel distribution is counted as a separate category of paid. Free trial subscriptions and free copies to schools or colleges are now reported separately in the verified category.
It remains to be seen whether publishers will choose to juice up their total "paid and verified" number with these options. The trend of recent years has been to cut back voluntarily on distant circulation and deep discounts to save on paper and distribution costs and give advertisers a better targeted audience.
After that, a little over a year from now, the big picture on newspaper circulation will be largely in the eye of the beholder.