July 21, 2021

In the newspaper industry, strategy No. 1 these days is to grow paid digital-only subscriptions. 

Here is an oddity, though: At the largest national newspapers and chains, reported numbers of digital subscriptions do not match the numbers in Alliance for Audited Media statements. There are several good reasons, I’m told. 

The audits, dating back to 1914 and ubiquitous for paid print circulation at newspapers and magazines, are a tool used to inform buying decisions for advertisers. (Here are three examples, for the Los Angeles Times, The San Diego Union-Tribune and The Boston Globe.) Most digital ads, unlike print, however, are bought on impressions, often along with targeting; thus a raw number for paid digital subscriptions is beside the point for most advertisers.

In addition, many AAM reporting rules date back a decade or so and have not kept pace with the steady unbundling of digital subscriptions from print.

All the same, the situation muddies the picture of where the digital sites of publications stand and are headed.

Measures of uniques viewers and pageviews come from Comscore and competing firms. By contrast, the totals of digital paid subscriptions are not subject to third-party verification. Outlets, in essence, are saying, “Trust me on these.”

I have no reason to think the numbers claimed by newspapers are padded. For public companies, misreporting would actually violate securities laws against misstating facts material to the business. 

But don’t go looking at AAM statements assuming the digital numbers there are the gold standard equivalent of its print measures.

Comparability is a casualty. Different papers and chains may have different practices on introductory pricing and extensions of lapsed digital subscriptions. That seems like a bad look for the industry.

Paid digital subscriptions are, of course, fundamentally an audience revenue strategy. However, one of the industry’s selling points to digital advertisers has been a high-quality content environment — compared to fake news and other undesirable material on big tech platform competitors.

It’s also a little disheartening to find that the engagement demonstrated by the growing audiences who pay for digital subscriptions remains a sidelight to the advertising action. The industry appears still to be stuck on a version of digital ad sales that primarily relies on cheap programmatic advertising sold at auction and through third parties.

Poking into the disparity over a period of weeks, I found extreme reluctance among those who choose their own count over AAM’s to discuss why. 

New York Times spokesperson Danielle Rhoades Ha emailed, “We believe releasing The Times’s digital subscription data ourselves with quarterly earnings makes the most sense for our business.” End of comment.

Chrissy Terrell Murray, who represents Gannett and its 250-daily USA Today Network, told me several times that she had checked to see whether an audience executive would discuss the topic, then emailed, “We are going to pass on the opportunity to respond on this particular inquiry.”

A spokesperson for McClatchy, a chain with 30 regional dailies, did not reply to three emails.

The AAM was more forthcoming. Ken Shultz, senior vice president for auditing, told me “there is not a direct and easy answer” for why so many long-time print clients abstain from the digital audit.

Participation in either is voluntary. “Publishers need to determine what serves them best (with) their advertisers and agencies,” he said. However, holdouts on the print audit are rare. The digital audit is an add-on to a print report and not wildly costly, Shultz continued, but “the recordkeeping takes time … and there is an indirect cost to ensure compliance.”

Shultz said that AAM’s staff and board (made up of both publishers and advertiser representatives) are aware that there is room for improvement. Just two weeks ago it offered one in a series of revised rules aimed at streamlining and modernizing its approach.

Like many of AAM’s rules and regulations, these focus on counting digital subscriptions and usage sold in tandem with print. That was logical a decade ago when few but The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal were pushing hard for digital-only growth.

Sales on Kindle and similar devices — both subscriptions and single-copy — were big then and poised to get bigger. After leveling off, they are still included in the AAM digital reports.

The way in which print plus digital subscribers use (or even choose to register for) the digital option is far from irrelevant to the newspaper business in 2021. It is tracked internally, but these are not metrics that are going to make for a selling point to potential advertisers.

The leaders in paid digital among regional newspapers — notably The Boston Globe, The Seattle Times, and The Star Tribune — do go to the trouble of reporting the full number on their AAM statements. They have something to brag about. Maybe those with lesser totals, until recently painfully low, conclude that the exercise is not worth the trouble.

In any case, it causes comparisons based on the AAM numbers to be a jumble. I noticed this earlier in the spring when Iris Chyi, an academic friend from the University of Texas at Austin, sent the latest in a series of studies of the business of digital news (which she, a contrarian, argues has largely failed to pay off).

Some of the fall 2020 AAM numbers she used look way off. 8,404 digital subscribers for McClatchy flagship The Sacramento Bee? 15,826 for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel? (For the Journal Sentinel, editor George Stanley confirmed my recollection that the total is now above 50,000.)

Differing print/digital strategies can throw a further wrinkle into AAM standards. Some years back, the AAM redefined the weekday print average, allowing the Advance Local papers to instead average the two or three days a week they did publish a print edition.

In the last 18 months, e-editions have become an important strategy for more and more papers (including my colleagues at the Tampa Bay Times). With better audit information breaking out e-edition numbers, Bruce Faulmann, vice president of sales and marketing at the Times, told me that he could make the case that readers see more and better ads as they read a version with the print layout online.

The board of AAM (formerly the Audit Bureau of Circulations) includes publisher representatives from Gannett, McClatchy and Advance Local. So I would think keeping up with the digital transformation mantra is in the realm of the possible.

Steve Yaeger, senior vice president for circulation and marketing at the Star Tribune, gave me a good closing thought. 

“Even if there is no particular value for an advertiser in that number (total paid digital-only subs),” Yaeger said in an interview, “it is a help as a business talking point. … Publishers should do it as a way to represent the health of that part of our industry.” 

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Rick Edmonds is media business analyst for the Poynter Institute where he has done research and writing for the last fifteen years. His commentary on…
Rick Edmonds

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