Why the newspaper industry is leaving six-month circulation reports behind

For several years now, the Alliance for Audited Media (AAM) has been reporting more and more detail on print and digital audience numbers for individual newspaper organizations while saying less and less about the industry as a whole.

That progression reaches its conclusion today with AAM's final six-month report, to be supplanted by required quarterly updates and monthly digital numbers too if a company chooses.

Related: USA Today, WSJ, NYT top U.S. newspapers by circulation

The current six-month reporting format, now called Snapshot and previously FAS-FAX, has been in place since 1968, AAM spokeswoman Rachael Battista told me.  But audited newspapers have been compiling six-month averages, she added, since the organization (formerly the Audit Bureau of Circulations) was formed in 1914.

The changes aim for greater timeliness, AAM executive vice president Neal Lulofs said in a phone interview, and need regular adjustment as organizations explore varied and more complex audience strategies.

Along the way, a bottom-line of paid print circulation has give way to a measure of total circulation, including paid digital on several different platforms and some non-paid but "qualified" or "verified" print edition distribution.

The way circulation numbers had traditionally been reported in news stories was one casualty of the changes.  A total circulation projection for the industry, compared to previous years, would be highly imprecise now because of constant rule changes and some double-counting.  Similarly comparisons between newspapers or a Top 25 circulation list are close to meaningless, given different strategies and considerable leeway in what a given paper chooses to count.

Some examples:

  • USA Today now claims more than 4 million total circulation, more than double what it was reporting two years ago.  But that growth has been entirely generated by digital and Gannett's decision to insert a section of USA Today news into its 35 largest regional papers. Digital and the insert section now account for roughly three quarters of USA Today's circulation. Its paid print circulation in news racks and subscriptions is actually falling fast.
  • In recent years,  AAM instituted, then rescinded, a requirement that papers report a five-day weekday print average, though many still do voluntarily.  Advance's Plain Dealer, in Cleveland, would rank in the Top 25 for the two weekdays it still home delivers a print edition -- but that circulation cannot be intelligibly be compared to papers like the Boston Globe or Dallas Morning News with high-price subscriptions and seven-day a week delivery.

Some industry critics would characterize the jumble of new rules and new totals as a smoke-and-mirrors exercise to obscure newspapers' continued losses of core paid print circulation. It is worth noting, however, that AAM's board has a heavy representation of advertisers, who have agreed to the changes and typically care more about a detailed breakdown for a given newspaper organization than comparisons among them or industry totals.

Among the complications AAM has dealt with in recent years is the widespread adoption of Sunday Select products, bundles of inserts with little or no news content delivered to non-subscribers in certain zip codes.  These are now counted as "branded editions," a designation that also applies to clusters of papers published under different titles owned by a single company, like Digital First's Los Angeles and San Francisco Bay groups.

Also the majority of mid-sized and large papers have now instituted digital paywalls.  That creates a new group of digital-only subscribers and an even larger group who get digital access along with a print subscription. Some subscribers pay for and use desktop/laptop sites, tablet editions, smart-phone apps, replica digital editions and versions for Kindle or Nook devices.

Broadly AAM's approach has been to measure each type of audience separately, accepting that some readers will be double or triple-counted.  To fix that confusion, it is currently experimenting with a Total Consumer Accounts metric, that would capture how many subscribers are paying for either a given platform or total access.

More changes in circulation practices and AAM rules are in the offing. The Washington Post has been offering free (for now) digital subscriptions to paid digital subscribers of regional papers and is reviving a national weekly print summary that papers may insert in their Sunday editions.

The New York Times counted both its new, slimmed down smartphone-targeted news product, NYT Now, and its international edition in the final AAM six-month report. Like the Post, the Times is starting a weekly print supplement for insert in regional papers.

Over time almost all papers except very small ones expect growth of digital readership while accepting continued erosion of paid print circulation.  A few -- mainly papers owned by Advance publications -- are trying to accelerate that movement by eliminating home delivery or print editions entirely several days a week.

John Murray, the Newspaper Association of America's top circulation executive, has generated several studies analyzing trends that can be identified in the AAM numbers.  He may do so again, Murray wrote me in an e-mail, but had no immediate comment on what the final Snapshot report says about the industry.


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