The sideways numbers in Monday's newspaper circulation report

The latest Audit Bureau of Circulations figures will be released this morning, and I can confidently predict totals for individual newspaper organizations and for the industry will be neither up nor down. They will be sideways.

That is because the six-month period completed September 30 is the second in which the audit bureau is phasing in numerous rules changes. Comparisons to the totals for the same period a year ago, therefore, would be invalid (and no one seems to be going to the trouble of attempting an adjusted calculation).

These equivocal results, to my mind, mirror what is going on in circulation strategy most places. Improvements that cannot be quantified cannot be monetized with advertisers.  Organizations that want to show stabilization or growth will do better to target the first reporting period of 2012 when apples-to-apples comparisons will be possible.

An exception is The New York Times, which started its metered paywall just days before the start of the latest reporting period. The Times Co. has already announced that it has more than 300,000 new paying digital customers and has held print circulation steady, or up some on Sundays, as well.

The rush is on now, with a great many small papers and a number of metros as well, phasing in their variations on the metered model. But relatively few started as soon as the Times, nor do they have the range of digital products or the national/international reach.

So I would agree with analyst Ken Doctor that the Times results will probably not be duplicated. But those results remain an important indicator to watch next spring as a measure of how the paywall movement is impacting a range of small, mid-size and big papers.

What you'll see today

As I wrote in May, the ABC changes liberalize what can be counted as paid and what can be counted as total distribution, especially by allowing paid copies to be sold for as little as pennies daily.

But the cost of newsprint and delivery ensures that most organizations will not go wild with deeply discounted copies. And some ABC rules, like allowing numerous days to be excluded from the calculations for bad weather or other reasons, have been tightened.

John Murray, who directs circulation matters at the Newspaper Association of America, has argued that changes in the industry mean that a single "bottom-line" paid number is not as nearly as relevant as it was a decade ago.

He elaborated in a phone interview Monday. "Now we have so many diverse audiences, who look at different metrics," Murray said, that the extensive breakdown in the new reporting format may be its most important impact.

A total audience number, including digital, may still help newspapers pitch to some advertisers that their various products reach a high percentage of a market's audience in the course of a week. And some organizations aim for the bragging rights of making the list of the Top 25 papers. MediaNews properties, the Chicago Sun-Times and others have cracked that list by combining a number of newspapers as a single "branded" edition.

But insert advertisers, Murray continued, care less about a grand total than coverage of certain desired ZIP codes. "And a local advertiser will ask, 'Did it sell anything?' rather than looking much at any of the circulation numbers."

One trend, evident when circulation was plummeting from 2004 to 2010, and again in the last six-months report, is almost certain to continue. Daily numbers stagnate, while Sundays come closer to holding their own or even increase some.

Sunday can account for upward of 50 percent of a paper's ad revenue, and the leisurely weekend print read has been less subject to replacement by digital competition than weekday editions.

Newspaper futurists have been speculating for years that papers may eventually pull back to a pattern of publishing Sunday and perhaps one other day a week. Few have done so yet, but the financial pinch of skinny papers on light advertising days becomes more and more punishing for the weakest performers.


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