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News Flash!: Circulation Up 1042%

|Includes: AABA, AHC, Gannett Co., Inc. (GCI), GHC, LEE, MNI, NWS, NYT, SSP

Wow. If the multi-platform strategy — newspapers, online editions, replica e-editions, iPad editions, smartphone editions, holographic ones to come — works, we’ll see circulation reports unlike those ever reported. That’s because ABC, the industry’s Audit Bureau of Circulations, has loosened its counting standards yet again. They are more modern, certainly, taking into account the ubiquitous access world unfolding. I give the standards points for transparency, increasing the detail given advertisers (and the few remaining analysts) in its prototype report, which can be seen here.

Yet, I wonder how valuable the system will be for selling advertising, which, of course, its main intent.

To quote Mark Fitzgerald in this morning’s Editor and Publisher, “In its example of a bundled subscription, ABC says a newspaper can count multiple copies per day from a subscriber who gets a print newspaper, but also access to a digital edition, mobile app or e-reader edition.

‘Beginning Oct. 1, newspapers that receive at least 5% of the price of the first or base subscription for each additional product made available in the offer can qualify all copies as paid circulation[emphasis mine],’ the ABC announcement said.”

So that’s how I’ve come up with my 1042% forecast.

Seriously, I wonder how much the Gumbo-like turns of circulation accounting will matter to ad buyers. Increasingly, across all media buying, they are focused on audience. They want to know who (gender, age, household status, region, clickstream behavior, recent buying behavior and more) and they want to target these on the fly, as the world turns, spinning ever more quickly. So audience targeting is getting to be instantaneous; a 20th of a second is what we hear it takes.

Compare that to circulation reports issued every six months, or even monthly, and I’ve got to wonder what to make of these colliding “data” worlds. Does an ad buyer really care if a single person accessed a single brand six ways to Sunday? More important is who that single person is, and what else she is doing in her life (if she has time!)

My feeling, and it may not be a fair one, is this is like recasting the steamship data, as trains and cars roll into the world.

I am glad to see that ABC is moving forward on the question of how it accounts for when a reader accessed a publication. While print remains a more reliable number, ABC has been counting digital readership by saying that if someone accessed a digital news product once within six months, that counted as a digital reader. It didn’t sweep away that standard, but is phasing it out:

The ABC board announced these standards for “fulfill requirements”:

“In a hybrid scenario, the print edition of the newspaper counts as paid circulation. For the digital component of the hybrid, the newspaper must demonstrate that the subscriber accessed the digital edition, based on the following schedule:

“Effective Oct. 1, 2010 for March and September 2011 Publisher’s Statements, the digital edition must be accessed at least once in the six-month Publisher’s Statement period to qualify the circulation as paid.

“Effective Oct. 1, 2011 for March and September 2012 Publisher’s Statements, the digital edition must be accessed at least once per quarter to qualify the circulation as paid.

“Effective Oct. 1, 2012 for all subsequent Publisher’s Statement periods, the digital edition must be accessed at least once per week to qualify as paid circulation.

So in a by-the-second world, just as we approach 2013, weekly digital access will be the standard.

All of these changes, of course, are works-in-progress, attempts to grapple with a world that ABC circulation practices never envisioned. The industry also uses Scarborough readership data, which itself has seen change. If it is successful in aligning that readership data (as the prototype somewhat aims to do) with the new circ data in ways that are meaningful to advertisers, maybe these changes will help sell ads. If not, time spent on retrofitting may better be spent expanding on such relationships as the Newspaper Consortium, which is now able to use more state-of-the-art audience targeting technology, through Yahoo, to sell digital advertising.

Disclosure: none