Articles about "Circulation"


Daily newspaper circulation totals ‘do not capture the full story’ anymore

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? Read more


NAA turns feisty, boasting of ad effectiveness and digital subscription success

The Newspaper Association of America’s annual mediaXchange conference is always part industry promotion, an occasion for expressions of confidence. But at this year’s edition in Orlando last week, those sentiments had a fighting edge.

Outgoing chairman Jim Moroney, publisher and CEO of the Dallas Morning News, chose a medley of down-home, don’t-mess-with-Texas aphorisms to open the conference. He said he was ready to bet against the “gaggle of self-proclaimed experts,” predicting the industry’s imminent demise that “print newspapers will still be around in 10 years” and that they will report their “first year-to-year increase in revenues (since the mid-2000s) by this time next year.”

Moroney, affectionately called “the Nutty Professor” by a later presenter, added that the industry should “open barrels of whoopass” on its critics and “ignore the Eeyores.”

In a similar vein, Moroney’s successor, Robert Nutting, CEO of Ogden Newspapers, said later in the conference: “We need to be our own evangelists; we need to get some of our swagger back.”

So what’s the case for swagger?

The NAA had commissioned a pair of studies documenting print ad effectiveness. One, an update of “How America Shops and Spends” by Frank N. Magid Associates, found that one-third of newspaper non-readers (those who read less than once a week) nonetheless use newspaper advertising, especially preprints and coupons in planning shopping.

A new study by Nielsen found that newspaper ads, compared to those in other media, are better remembered and more often acted upon, especially on key shopping occasions like Black Friday. And they were judged by those surveyed as “less annoying” than TV and digital counterparts.

In a separate session on new newspaper owner-investors, Terry Kroeger, who runs Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway group, was guarded on specific numbers but said the company had “an outstanding first quarter.” There should be more light this week on whether revenues and earnings are indeed trending upward as Gannett and the New York Times Co. report first quarter results.

Not surprisingly, the conference also highlighted the success of digital subscription plans and the 5 percent increase in circulation revenues they prompted in 2012.

Two different speakers from Gannett said that the company did deep research on the perceived value of newspapers before deciding on steep price increase for both print and print + digital bundles. Typically readers thought they were paying 50 to 200 percent more than they actually were. So why not charge accordingly?

I have argued in past posts that a hidden benefit of bundled print+digital subscription plans is that the industry will be well-positioned over time as reader preferences among platforms shift. For instance, a swing from laptop/desktop to mobile, as many are predicting for the several years, would be a non-event from a subscription point of view for the many subscribers now getting some form of all-access.

Consultant Matt Lindsay of Mather Economics, expressed a similar idea in a different fashion: part of the charm of the bundled model, he said, is that different subscribers can value the component parts differently and still be satisfied.

As a longtime New York Times print subscriber, for instance, I may see $50 of the $70 I pay a month as covering seven days a week of print home-delivery, the other $20 buying unlimited digital access. A young digital-first reader, who gets the less pricey digital and Sunday print option may have the reverse sense of what each is worth.

So I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that with metered paywalls and bundled subs, the industry has successfully transitioned to a new business model for collecting revenue from subscribers — more of them all the time are paying not just for the paper but for access to content whenever and on whatever platform they want.

The advertising side of the equation is trickier. Panelists at the conference typically reported that page views have gone down some since they put in a paywall but that digital advertising has held steady or increased. But Jerry Hill, Gannett’s top circulation director (and a colleague from his years at Poynter’s Tampa Bay Times) pointed out that there also is an indirect tradeoff in losing paid print subscribers and some print revenues, especially those from preprints. And, of course, print ads are still more lucrative than digital.

That is worth considering as companies boast of gains in digital subs and circulation revenues. Successful in their own terms, the new subscription plans may be contributing to continued advertising losses on the print side.

I came away from mediaXchange marking two other key issues in the category of unfinished business.

Through the NewsRight licensing agency the industry created, it continues to work on deals to collect royalties from aggregators for recycling and profiting from expensive-to-produce content newspapers originate. But content licensing is a complex matter legally and technologically and revenue success to date appears modest.

Similarly, the search for mobile ads to accompany the boom in audience for smart phones and tablets remains in an early stage.

George Bell, president and CEO of Jumptap, a leading mobile targeting vendor, said the industry’s audience has grown 10 times as quickly as the Internet did on desktop/laptop, and that both advertisers and publishers have years to go in developing effective marketing strategies.

“When people ask what inning we are in,” Bell said, “that’s the wrong metaphor. It is really more like asking a team to shift from playing baseball to playing soccer.” Read more

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Newspaper litter a First Amendment issue, town officials say

Chicago Tribune
Residents of the Chicago suburb St. Charles, Ill., have to solve the problem of uninvited newspapers themselves, town officials say. The offending papers are “often free versions of papers from media companies in the area including the Chicago Tribune, the Daily Herald, the Kane County Chronicle and the St. Charles Examiner,” City Administrator Brian Townsend tells the Tribune’s Kate Thayer.

City Attorney Gerald Gorski said the city cannot set limitations on the distribution of printed materials, although some have tried. Municipalities who in the past have regulated the practice have been shot down by the courts, he said.

“The First Amendment trumps everything,” Gorski said, adding that because the papers include not just advertising but editorial content, they are protected.

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USPS won’t end Saturday delivery

The Washington Post

The U.S. Postal Service said Wednesday it will not end Saturday delivery, something it announced in February that it planned to do.

The USPS hoped curtailing delivery on those days would help it control costs. Unlike many other government bodies, the USPS is required to pre-fund retirement obligations. In fiscal 2012, the USPS’ deficit was $16 billion. It estimated ending Saturday delivery would save about $2 billion.

The change would have landed hard on newsweeklies and community papers, many of which deliver on Saturdays. Bloomberg Businessweek announced last month that it had partnered with Gannett to have newspaper carriers deliver the magazine in some markets. It began rolling out its alternate delivery program in 2010.

Previously: Newspapers, magazines will have ‘not-great’ choices as USPS plans to end Saturday delivery | Bloomberg Businessweek expands non-postal delivery Read more


Deeper data dive finds $5.5 billion in uncounted newspaper industry revenue

Years of negative reports on ad revenue losses could leave the newspaper industry muttering, “I demand a recount.” The Newspaper Association of America has just completed such an exercise and found some solid gains that have been overlooked previously in its own measurements.

New statistics released Monday produced these findings:

• Circulation revenue was up 5 percent year-to-year in 2012.  That is the result of new digital-only subscriptions and the higher prices being charged for print-only and print-plus-digital bundles.  Paid print circulation volume continued to fall during the year, but that was more than made up for by the higher rates. Read more

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Bloomberg Businessweek expands non-postal delivery

Bloomberg Businessweek is expanding its alternate delivery program via a partnership with Gannett, the magazine will announce Monday. Subscribers in Cincinnati, Asheville, N.C., and 13 other markets will by July be able to receive their magazines via Gannett’s newspaper-delivery apparatus.

Alternate delivery systems will become more important for many weekly magazines and community newspapers if the the United States Postal Service goes through with its proposal to eliminate Saturday delivery. In February, Businessweek’s head of manufacturing and distribution, Bernie Schraml, told Poynter that one issue with alternate delivery is that the USPS prohibits private services from delivering to customers’ mailboxes. Read more


The problem with Sunday papers: Why rising numbers are not what they seem

For several years, Sunday editions have been the brightest star in a fading constellation for print newspapers. When circulation numbers were falling, Sunday routinely did better than daily. As recently as the Audit Bureau of Circulations spring report six months ago, Sunday was up 5 percent year-to-year.

But in a new ABC report released late last month, Sunday outperformed daily by a bare fraction of a percentage point — up 0.6 percent versus daily circulation down 0.2 percent. Not a horrible result, but a marked turn for the worse. Why?

Sunday growth slows

One factor is that the super-couponing craze, at its peak in the spring and summer of 2011, has run its course. Editor Neil Brown of Poynter’s Tampa Bay Times told me that the decline in couponing, together with a price increase, was the main culprit in a 5.9 percent year-to-year Sunday decline for the paper.

John Murray, who directs circulation research and training at the Newspaper Association of America, said in a phone interview that he too thinks the phenomenon of coupon enthusiasts buying multiple copies to increase savings has waned or stopped.

“When circulation executives were budgeting 2012″ a year ago, Murray said, “some of the smart ones used 2010 rather than 2011 as their basis,” figuring the couponing windfall would not be sustained.

Murray added that the complexity of new ABC rules and reports might also be a factor.  Some papers may be skipping the expense of additional auditing charges to verify results in multiple platforms, he said.

Neal Lulofs, executive vice president for communications of ABC (now known as the Alliance for Audited Media), said that the total number of papers audited has not changed much. Agreeing with Murray, Lulofs wrote in an e-mail that papers began counting their Sunday Select distribution (packages of inserts to non-subscribers) in early 2011, but some are having difficulty meeting requirements for qualifying those numbers under ABC rules. As my colleague Andrew Beaujon noted previously, that kind of compliance problem accounted for most of a 20 percent reported Sunday circulation loss at The Washington Post.

When NAA did a print circulation estimate for the entire industry earlier this year, it found a 2011 Sunday total of 48.5 million, up from 46.1 million in 2009. (ABC measures only audited papers reporting results in both six-month periods being compared).

Where Sunday circulation grew

Murray’s analysis of the new results shows that all the growth, daily and Sunday, comes from a group of 40 larger papers — those with circulation of 250,000 and higher. They are achieving that with paid digital and branded editions (including Sunday Select and groups of papers adjacent geographically and under common ownership).

For the very largest papers, those with circulation over 500,000, according to Murray’s calculations, only 64 percent of the total circulation claimed is traditional print — the rest is made up of various digital offerings and the branded editions.

Neither digital nor branded are important factors yet in the totals for smaller papers.

Sunday circulation trends show gains in largest papers, fueled by digital growth
Circulation size % Change total avg. circ. Print % of total avg. circ.
500,000+ 13.3 64.2
250-499,999 0.8 80.7
100-249,999 -1.8 89.4
50-99,999 -6.4 89.7
25-49,999 -5.7 95.5
Less than 25,000 -5.2 95.8

Last month, Murray and NAA published another annual survey of circulation trends, Circulation 2012: Facts, Figures and Logic (only available free to members). Based on a survey of circulation executives, it paints a surprisingly positive picture given the long-term trend downward in circulation numbers.

The lead finding is that circulation revenues fell just 4.6 percent in the five years since 2006, while circulation marketing and delivery expenses were down 28.4 percent over the same time period. Obviously, successful price increases are part of that story. But the report also finds papers using more sales channels to obtain new subscriptions, bringing renewal rates up and steering new customers to credit card payment and automatic renewal (so-called EZ-Pay), another way to build retention.

The survey found that only 7 percent of papers, mostly small ones dropping a Monday edition, had reduced daily print schedules at all. However the mix of subscription packages is directing readers to Sunday-only or Sunday in combination with other high-advertising days — a move that effectively makes the same number of copies circulated more valuable to advertisers.

My own take is that the industry deserves credit both for stabilizing numbers (with a growing dependence on paid digital) and for increasing circulation profitability with a series of barely noticed cost-cutting moves.

But I also came across a qualifier I had not considered, as individual companies like Gannett and The New York Times are moving away from a heavy dependence on advertising and getting readers to pay a bigger share of the expense.

I missed, but The Wall Street Journal’s Keach Hagey and analyst Frédéric Filloux picked up, a curious exchange in the New York Times Co. earnings conference call October 25. An analyst asked why margins had fallen for the quarter even though circulation revenue gains roughly made up for print ad revenue declines.

Times Company Chief Financial Officer James Follo replied:

Well, look, margin is always a function of our advertising revenues because when you lose $1 advertising revenue, you’re losing at very high margin, we tend to think about 80% to 90% … While we’re adding good dollars on the circulation side, we spend marketing dollars against that. Incrementally, $1 subscription especially on the digital side is quite profitable. (But) It is very hard to offset a weak (ad) environment like this.

Follo is certainly right, especially if I understand him correctly to be talking about marginal cost rather than average. The next 100 new subscriptions are much more expensive to sell than the rest of the base, largely made up of loyal readers who can be counted on to renew.

On the other hand, selling more ads entails higher commissions for the sales force and slightly higher production costs. But each additional unit sold is close to pure gravy.

Does that mean that advertising revenue is still king in the newspaper business model and that getting it headed in the right direction is essential to stabilizing the industry economically? l’m afraid so. Read more


Washington Post Sunday circulation drop bad, but not quite as bad as it looks

The Washington Post’s average Sunday circulation dropped 20.2 percent over 2011, according to the most recent Audit Bureau of Circulations report. But just like in the May report, the September report didn’t count the Post’s branded editions with its Sunday numbers.

That branded edition is Savings Now, an advertising product with editorial content that’s home-delivered to non-Post subscribers. It added 119,029 to the Sunday 2011 numbers. Subtract that from the difference between 2011′s average Sunday circulation (846,019) and 2012′s (674,751), and you have a real drop of 52,239, or a little more than 7 percent. Read more


Newspaper circulation stays the same in latest ABC report, but the mix is shifting to digital

Newspaper circulation was essentially the same in the six months ending September 30, compared to the same period a year ago, the Audit Bureau of Circulations reported this morning.

The 613 papers reporting daily results for both periods saw circulation fall 0.2 percent. For 528 papers reporting comparable Sunday results, circulation was up 0.6 percent.

Those numbers mask an important change, though. With the fast adoption of paywall systems, paid digital has risen to 15.3 percent of the total, compared to 9.8 percent in the 2011 period. That means print numbers are falling by roughly an equal amount.

That change is not surprising given digital pay plan trends. More than 300 papers now charge for digital, with 70 of Gannett’s 80 community papers making the switch and McClatchy’s 30 just beginning a similar roll-out.

So digital-only subs are on the rise. Plus the many papers that offer a bundled subscription including print and several digital platforms can count users on each of those additional platforms as new circulation, so long as the digital option is accessed once a month.

At the same time, many publishers — including Gannett and The New York Times are raising print subscription rates. They are accepting some loss in circulation numbers to get equal or greater revenue.

Finally, the new digital packages often allow Sunday-only subscriber access to all digital versions, shifting some print readership from daily to Sunday. So Sundays have been showing better results for several reporting periods, though the differences are small this six months.

Circulation rankings of the largest papers also stayed steady. The New York Times has passed the Wall Street Journal in digital subscribers, but the Journal holds its overall lead. The Times is now within 100,000 copies of passing USA Today for second.

With its booming digital circulation growth, The New York Times has a wide lead on Sundays, with more than twice the volume of the second-ranked Houston Chronicle.

ABC cautions against drawing too many comparisons — either among papers or at individual papers year-to-year because of changes in rules, offerings and what individual papers choose to count.

Included in the paid totals are digital replica editions and copies sold on e-readers. Also, papers are allowed to count as “verified circulation” Sunday Select products, typically the insert package with little or no news, so long as non-subscribing households have asked to receive it.

Also there is a category for “branded editions,” allowing clusters like MediaNews’s San Francisco holdings or the Chicago Sun Times and its suburban papers to be combined for reporting purposes.

Under a new rule phased in this reporting period, papers have added the metric of total customer accounts. This will allow advertisers to assess how much double-counting there is at a given paper under the liberal digital rules. Read more


New York Times’ circulation revenue lags growth in digital subscriptions

Wall Street rewarded The New York Times Co. with a 10 percent stock price increase Thursday after a second-quarter earnings report with several significant bits of good news:

  • For a second consecutive quarter, increases in circulation revenue more than made up for ad revenue losses.
  • Circulation revenue is pulling even with ad revenue for the company as a whole; at The New York Times itself, circulation revenue exceeds that from ads.
  • New York Times digital subscriptions passed the 500,000 mark, achieving 12 percent growth since March. Skeptics like me thought it might take a whole year to reach that.
  • And the company forecasts better ad revenue and profitability for the second half of the year as it moves past sharp traffic and revenue losses at its subsidiary.

All that progress is real, but the company’s figures mask a fast-shifting mix within its circulation base.

The increase in the number of digital subscriptions was measured from the previous quarter — not the norm in the industry, but maybe justified given its fast growth and the intense investor and public interest in the Times’ paywall.

But circulation revenue was compared to the second quarter of 2011. This time a year ago, three months after introducing the paywall, digital subs stood at 281,000, Chairman and acting CEO Arthur Sulzberger said Thursday.

So apples to apples, the number of digital subscribers rose roughly 80 percent in a year, but that yielded just an 11 percent gain in circulation revenue for the Times and the International Herald Tribune.

Why the discrepancy? Some theories:

First, part of it is simple math. Even at 500,000-plus, digital subscriptions are only about half the Times’s average daily print circulation. So two-thirds of the base is not growing nearly as quickly.

Print isn’t the culprit. The overall circulation revenue figure, of course, includes print. The company said that the Times has lost some circulation (6 percent daily, 2 percent Sunday year-to-year), but that it’s been mostly covered by price increases, most recently in the single-copy price of the daily paper. So that would be close to a wash, year-to-year.

Discounted subscriptions are driving the gains. I wonder how many of those digital subscriptions have been secured at deeply discounted, introductory rates and whether they now account for a larger share than they did a year ago.

The company’s financials do not indicate this, and Times spokeswoman Eileen Murphy declined to be more specific when I posed the question directly.

Denise Warren, chief ad officer and general manager of, did say in an earnings conference call that the gain in digital subs was boosted by three separate marketing initiatives during the quarter, and that more of the same is planned for the balance of the year.

Print subscribers are cutting back. Since print subscribers get digital access free, another possibility is that a substantial number of them are stepping down from daily subscriptions to Sunday-only. A subscriber would save several hundred dollars with such a switch; that would be a net circulation revenue loss to the company.

The company is making less money off new subscribers than it did from old ones who are dropping off. The cheapest digital subscription costs less than a third of a daily print one. And subs or single-copy sales on Kindle and other tablet devices cost considerably less than print. So it’s possible that new subscribers are choosing digital as some print subscribers drop away.

Warren also said that retention rates for digital subscriptions are excellent, though that doesn’t really quantify the extent of churn.

With all those variables in play, the company deserves the plaudits it is getting for keeping circulation revenues net positive. I’m still baffled, though, as to whether that trajectory can be maintained and at what cost.

Speaking of bafflement…

What’s behind the drop in digital ad revenue?

Murphy attributed the small year-to-year loss in digital advertising revenues to soft demand in national display and real estate classified — not to any loss in traffic for  Page views and time-on-site have remained steady, Murphy said, contrary to warnings from paywall critics that they would fall sharply.

During the earnings call, Times Co. executives said that advertising results remain volatile: down 6 percent year-to-year in April, 1 to 2 percent in May, 12 percent in June. (Gannett had reported the same pattern and roughly the same percentages earlier this month.) July will be down, but not nearly as much as June, they said.

Sulzberger said that the Times Chinese-language digital edition, launched in late June, is off to a strong start. He said that the company is in the planning stage for a number of other niche digital offerings.

Skill in managing that sort of digital growth, he said, is part of the expertise he is looking for in a new CEO, a search he expects to complete in the next several months. The Times’ Amy Chozick was more definitive, citing an unnamed company source who said a successor could be named by September.

For now, the Times Co. is outperforming the pack, especially considering that it has no broadcast earnings, which is a big help in a political and Olympics year at companies whose newspapers are not doing so well. Read more