May 5, 2015
Alliance for Audited Media logo

Alliance for Audited Media logo

Compulsive calendar watchers may have notice that May 1 has come and gone without the typical report on newspaper circulation averages for the six months ended March 31.

There isn’t such a report and won’t be.

Instead the Alliance for Audited Media is requiring newspapers to report quarterly and giving them the option of updating digital metrics monthly.

The first of the new format quarterly reports are available on AAM’s website and others will be uploaded over the next several weeks, according to Neal Lulofs, executive vice president for marketing and strategy.

The so-called Consolidated Media Reports aim to offer more detailed and more up to date information.  Of course, they include paid digital subscriptions and other variations like free Sunday distribution of coupon packets without the news to selected zip codes.

The six-month reports, dating back to the 1960s, were known for most of their life as FAS-FAX and more recently as Snapshot.  They were tailored to the pre-digital era where paid daily and Sunday circulation were the numbers that mattered, and there were only a few minor sub-categories like distribution to schools.

In recent years, comparability got muddled with varying strategies on paywalls, new categories like replica editions (a digital file of the print paper), and the decision of some papers, especially in the Advance chain, not to publish or home-deliver print papers on certain days.

Then, as now, the main point of the reports and regular audits was to give media buyers reliable information as they chose where to place ads.  The six-month releases served to raise the profile of AAM, known previously as the Audit Bureau of Circulations.

The good old days were not without controversy.  In 2004, four large papers — Newsday, the Chicago Sun Times, the Dallas Morning News and El Hoy — were caught padding their totals by tens of thousands.  They were forced to give refunds or free placements to advertisers who had bought at rates based on the inflated numbers.

Registered reporters can still access the AAM database for free.  And the alliance’s  PR department can help with navigation, recognizing, as Lulofs put it in an e-mail, that “making sense of the data isn’t always easy.”

It also is still possible, with some work, to generate lists of top papers by circulation. However, Lulofs wrote:

Folks who insist on rankings are on their own. We continue to discourage it, as I don’t know how you can validly and confidently rank figures that are not necessarily comparable, especially for those papers that don’t report a five-day average.

Calculating an industry-wide total or year-to-year trend in circulation is even trickier.  The Pew Research Center used its own methodology in the recent State of the News Media report and arrived at an estimate that both daily and Sunday circulation declined a bit more than 3 percent in 2014.

I asked Lulofs if AAM had a comment on how accurate that might be.

We didn’t do any of that analysis. Nor have we for ourselves, candidly, so I can’t really say if we think the figures are in line with our views or not.

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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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