Today’s circulation numbers bring new baseline for measuring newspaper growth or decline

Years in the making, a complex new set of rules for measuring newspaper circulation officially launched with the release today of results for the six-month period that ended March 31. Total paid circulation is gone as the top-line measure. In its place is a summary number for total average circulation, both paid and “verified.”

The Audit Bureau of Circulations, which compiles the reports, and the Newspaper Association of America, have both cautioned that the many rule changes mean the results at a given paper cannot be intelligibly compared to those of a year ago. The same is true for a total figure for the industry.

But the figures, still reported separately for daily and Sunday, do establish a baseline to measure industry growth or contraction, beginning a year from now and on into the future.

The new totals are not radically different for most papers. That is because the ”verified” category picks up what most of what used to be called “other paid” — copies purchased by a third party, like a hotel, or editions provided for in-school programs.

Here is some of what has changed in the reports:

  • “Branded editions” are a new category being measured. These are versions of the paper, usually with a different nameplate and some distinct content. Several news organizations have embraced this way of selling their circulation story to advertisers, and it does result in a substantially higher total.
    For instance, the San Jose Mercury group now includes the Contra Costa Times and other San Francisco-based papers owned by MediaNews. The Philadelphia Daily News is now a branded edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer. The Chicago Sun-Times with its suburban papers and Media News’s Los Angeles group have also made the switch. Others may follow.
  • Digital editions receive new treatment in several ways. Beginning with this report, ABC will differentiate “replica” digital editions, those that reproduce the print paper exactly, including ads, from “non-replica” editions like those sold on e-readers.

The rules, in most instances, require that readers pay something for any digital edition counted, or, in the case of print subscribers, something extra. That raises the possibility that a single subscriber could be counted twice, three or four times if paying for access on several different devices.

The pay-something rule (due for further modification in the period starting October 2011) presents publishers with a choice. They may still choose to grant print subscribers all-access to digital editions for free, as The New York Times and others are doing. But in that case, digital editions will count toward the average circulation totals only if users register and access them a given number of times per month.

There are a couple of potentially controversial elements of the new system.

So-called “Sunday Select” and other programs distributing circulars to targeted non-subscribers have been widely adopted over the last several years and are popular with advertisers. Sometimes the ads come with a very condensed news report, sometimes not.

But under the new ABC rules, even packets with no news content can count toward the verified total if those receiving the product have requested it. In other words, some circulation now will be an “edition” with only ads.

Another rule, actually in effect for 18 months now, allows papers to count as paid, copies for which someone has paid as little as a penny. In theory, this could lead papers to pad their numbers with many deeply discounted offers.

However, that hasn’t happened and probably won’t. During the long gestation period for the rules, circulation came to be valued as a revenue source, while ad revenues were plummeting. Most papers have cut back on distribution to remote areas or putting copies in the hands of people only marginally interested. Such waste circulation is expensive to serve and of little value to advertisers.

With newsprint prices jumping 20 to 30 percent over the last year and rising gasoline prices currently driving up delivery costs, there is even less logic for such shortcuts to better numbers.

The long run-up to putting the full set of rules is place also creates an irony, John Murray, the NAA’s circulation expert, told me in a phone interview Friday.

“Three papers of considerable size called me in the last 24 hours,” he said, “saying they actually would have had up numbers under the old rules” (after 15 consecutive six-month periods of industry declines). But that probably cannot be publicized in promotional materials, since ABC members are asked to cite only figures ABC actually audits.

The rules will probably be viewed, rightly, as liberalizing what counts as circulation, Murray said. But he noted that several loopholes got tightened along the way — restrictions on counting “intermittent” service of weekday papers to Sunday subscribers and allowing fewer bad-weather days to be excluded from the sample on which totals are based. Each of these changes contributed, at least modestly, to declines reported over the last two years, Murray said.

As expected, the numbers were up a little at many papers, when totals were released this morning, and the top papers in daily and Sunday circulation did not change. Larger gains were posted by papers with Sunday Select distribution plans or those with multiple branded editions.

Deep in the fine print of the new rules, there is an indicator of some push-and-pull between advertiser and publisher members who, together, formulated the new ABC rules. To maintain ABC membership, newspapers must not report more than 30 percent of total circulation in the new verified category.

Historically, this week’s reports are a marker of the industry’s transition from simple print-online combinations to a norm of multiple editions, print and digital, along with other products.

The ABC website currently features a case study that describes going even further than the new basic reporting format, with a new mix of audience metrics. The Austin American-Statesman is among 20 pilot subscribers to a new ABC premium service called Consolidated Media Report.

The Statesman now offers advertisers ABC-audited totals for nine distinct products: the print newspaper, a related group of community newspapers, the primary website, a Spanish-language edition, an events website, social media channels, advertising products for Sundays and Wednesdays, and a new site covering University of Texas sports.

Newspapers will be deciding whether such a full accounting of audiences is worth the extra expense. But watch for more papers to embrace this multidimensional version of circulation — the number of Facebook friends and Twitter followers included.

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  • Anonymous

    David:

    To be clear, this was in a discussion of expanded documentation of a range of audiences. No one is talking about Facebook friends or Twitter followers as “circulation.” However I can see it being viewed by some within a few years as an index of which newspaper organizations are best expanding their reach through social media.

  • Anonymous

    How is anybody served by counting Facebook friends and Twitter followers as having been ‘reached’ by a newspaper or media company? Do they get the news? Do they get the ads? Have they paid anyone for the privilege?

    These are games, not unlike the hotel copies circulation games that embarrassed so many papers a few years ago.