On Tuesday, the Alliance for Audited Media (formerly ABC) will announce circulation totals for American newspapers, as it has done in regular six-month cycles for as long as I can remember.

I will hazard a guess about the results, but that's not the news this time. What's important is that the totals -- and the list of the top 25 newspapers in average daily circulation generated from them -- are headed for the scrap heap.

"The total circulation numbers do not capture the full story any longer," Neal Lulofs, executive vice president at AAM, told me in a phone interview. AAM's board has decided to make reporting a five-day average -- long the standard -- optional for papers. That means come October there will be no valid comparison of daily circulation among newspapers.

John Murray, who directs audience research and training at the Newspaper Association of America (NAA), said doing away with the familiar metric makes sense. "Totaling up the numbers is not a meaningful metric," he said by phone, adding that "what advertisers want and use is the detailed breakdown" by day of the week and by category of distribution.

The coup de grace for the daily circulation average is the move at Advance Publications in New Orleans and other markets to print and deliver paper editions to homes only three days a week. Combining two days of full print publication and three off-days yields a nonsensical average, so Advance has petitioned for and received an exemption from reporting in that manner.

Even at the great majority of papers still publishing print every day, Thursday and Friday totals are likely to be far higher than Monday and Tuesday since weekend subscriptions have become a standard offering. Advertisers and agencies, who hold the majority of seats on the AAM board, favored dropping the five-day average, Murray said, "because it could overstate or understate the day they are placing an ad -- and hardly anyone buys all five days."

The AAM rule change will still allow comparison of Sunday circulations. However, the organization is also contemplating shifting to detailed rolling quarterly reports, phasing out the six-month periods.

As I have noted in earlier posts, the total circulation bottom line is not particularly comparable to the paid circulation total it supplanted several years ago. Also, publishers vary widely in how they are using new categories eligible for inclusion, so a valid comparison requires plenty of footnotes.

On the other hand, the top 25 lists have typically been the lead measure -- or the only one -- highlighted in trade-press reports on the bi-annual circulation figures. Inclusion on those lists and movement up or down compared to the same period a year earlier is probably still a source of bragging rights, at least for some publishers. So I suppose there could be interest in reconfiguring and continuing some form of daily comparison.

Several qualifiers will be particularly significant in examining Tuesday's results. As paid print circulation for Sunday editions has fallen through the years, many publishers in larger cities have started offering a free packet of preprint/inserts to households in desirable ZIP codes that request them.

These so-called Sunday Select programs can count as a separate "verified" category in the total circulation figures. However, the rules for inclusion are cumbersome and the auditing process an added expense, so some publishers choose not to bother.

That's also true for free "branded editions" distributed daily, whether they're re-edited tabloid versions of the mother paper (like Chicago Tribune's RedEye or the Tampa Bay Times' tbt*) or a foreign-language reworking. Not all papers publish such products, and not all that do choose to qualify them for the audited report.

The fast rise of digital-only subscriptions and digital + print bundles is another potential source of confusion. In this transitional stage, many newspapers are adding to their totals with these paywall offers, but some holdouts are not. Also, a number of conversions were recent enough that they weren't in effect for the full six-month reporting period.

And complex (and lenient) rules allow organizations to count digital access on two, three or four additional platforms for a given print user as separate subscriptions -- if publishers so choose, which not all of them do.

With all these cautions about interpreting Tuesday's numbers out of the way, what will they show? Here's my forecast:

  • Paid print circulation, both daily and Sunday (now broken out as a subcategory), will fall as Gannett and many other chains switching to digital bundles have used the switch to raise prices aggressively. Such publishers are accepting some loss of print circulation volume to still come out with higher circulation revenue.
  • The total circulation result is a wild card, depending on how aggressively organizations have been adding other qualified products and how aggressive they are in buying the extra audits necessary to claim them.
  • Digital subscription and single-copy numbers will rise sharply (or displace print, if you look at it that way). You have the double bump of more papers -- 450 at last count -- making the new bundled offers and the option to count those accepting such offers multiple times. AAM requires a count of total customer accounts in individual audits so advertisers can apply a correction for double-counting if they wish.
  • Though AAM/ABC has never made circulation revenue estimates, it makes even less sense than before to assume one can compare the total circulations of similar newspapers and assume the same ratio of revenues.

The AAM rule changes have come in for some criticism, and right now they bring to mind the old line about a camel being a horse designed by committee. In my view, though, the changes -- even if they may need further revision -- reflect the complexity and variety of audience strategies at newspaper organizations, and the level of detail ad buyers want to see.

If that makes it more difficult for reporter/analysts like me to tell a simple story, so what?