Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Newspaper circulation numbers might not be what they seem

I was doing some research the other day on the circulation numbers of various newspapers and have been watching Editor & Publisher for the news release regarding the March report.

It was featured yesterday:

Today the Audit Bureau of Circulations released the FAS-FAX covering U.S. newspaper circulation figures for the period of October 2010 - March 2011. Complete files containing data on more than 800 daily and weekly U.S. and Canadian newspapers are posted on ABC's website.

Unless you are a member of the 'accredited press,' you cannot get the full report, but a rule change, detailed in the press release, caught my eye:

In the past, the top-line metric that ABC commonly reported was "Total Paid Circulation." This category no longer exists on ABC reports. The new top-line number is "Total Average Circulation," which consists of a publication's paid and verified print and digital circulation, including any branded editions.

So what does this mean?

According to ABC, here is the difference in what they are counting:

o Paid circulation is defined as copies purchased by the individual recipient or a specialized distribution channel (business/traveler)

o Verified circulation includes much of what used to be reported in “other” paid circulation (including third-party copies and copies distributed to schools and newspaper employees)

Yes, copies to employees and free copies to schools are now counted as part of the circulation numbers.

A while back, I learned that the University of Toledo had paid The Blade several thousand dollars to deliver an e-edition of the paper to all students. This information came from a student who wanted to know if their student fees were being used for this purpose and how he could stop receiving the daily email. I don't know the outcome of his efforts, but I do know the UT website states that nearly 21,000 students attend, so that means The Blade's circulation numbers, when released, will include those students, inflating their report.

Some may say this is a more accurate way of reflecting the reach of the newspapers, but there is a problem with what appears to be a simple change: it doesn't allow you to compare previous reports to future ones.

I believe ABC should have included this as a 'new' category in the report - but perhaps they were pressured by the newspapers to not do so.

My friend, Tom Blumer, who writes at Bizzy Blog, compared this report with the one from last March only to find that the new definition doesn't do much to hide the decline in the newspaper industry. He writes:

In a nutshell, ABC has added “verified” to “paid,” and has included copies in “total average circulation” which were formerly excluded from “total paid circulation.” Yet the industry’s top players with rare exceptions still showed circulation declines despite the alleged economic “recovery” many of them continue to tout.

So when we learn the circulation numbers of our local papers, keep this in mind...

1 comment:

Timothy W Higgins said...


No one should be surprised that the ABC has become complicit in the fabrication of circulation numbers for newspapers. For years they served as a willing dupe, allowing these businesses to count street sales, home delivery, "Newspapers In Education", and copies dropped at hotels for potential distribution.

Legitimately, newspapers have complained in recent years that those accessing their websites were not properly accounted for (paid or otherwise). ABC has come up with some new rules to allow such counting to put a tourniquet on leaking circulation, and does so with a purpose.

Ad revenue rates for both ROP and inserts are based on circulation and market penetration. Since subscriptions pay only a fraction of the cost of producing their product, newspapers are desperate for anything that bolsters these flagging finances.

Once a the fair arbiter, ABC has sold their souls in a fit of self-preservation. For if newspapers fail, there would be no need for the ABC.

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