October 30, 2012

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.

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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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