Hide the (Bigger) Declines: Audit Bureau's Newspaper Circ Report Redefines the Term, Avoids Prior-Year Comparisons

How convenient. Via Editor and Publisher, the newspaper industry's Audit Bureau of Circulations, in issuing its March 31, 2011 circulation figures, tells us we shouldn't try to compare this year's numbers to last year's:

Because of the new and redefined categories of circulation on this FAS-FAX report, ABC recommends not making any direct comparisons of March 2011 data to prior audit periods.

As readers will see, if the ABC was really interested in enabling us to make apples-to-apples comparisons, it could have done so with appropriate definitional caveats. But it didn't; instead, it revised its definition of "total circulation" this year without disclosing the impact of the switch.

I've made the comparisons where possible for daily editions anyway, and they follow after the jump (original info links: March 31, 2011; March 31, 2010; Boston Globe data obtained here):

NewspaperCirc033111v033110

Before moving on to the year-over-year comparison problem, I should note that daily circulation at the ever less influential New York Times is down by over 200,000 copies in the past four years.

Because it appears that there is inconsistency in their treatment, I passed on comparing publications with branded editions (if you take out branded editions, you're left with small declines at most papers listed, but a very large, inexplicable slide at the San Jose Mercury News).

Setting aside the "branded edition" issue, even publications without branded editions are not directly comparable between 2010 and 2011. Jim Romenesko at Poynter.org lays it out, based on info in a press release from the ABC:

An ABC release explains:

 

In FAS-FAX reports prior to March 2011, the top-line metric that was 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 editions. Total average circulation also includes any paid and verified branded editions.

 

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

 

* 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)

 

... In FAS-FAX reports prior to March 2011, the top-line metric that was 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 editions.

 

... Much of what used to be considered “other” paid circulation (which had been excluded -- Ed.), including third-party sales and NIE (newspapers in education -- Ed.) copies is now reported as “verified” circulation and included in the total average circulation number.

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.

Clearly, the ABC's redefinition is hiding a further declines at many if not most of the papers listed above. It would appears to be potentially quite big in the case of USA Today, which relies heavily on hotel readership for visibility. It's just as clear that if the ABC was okay with enabling the general public to appropriately compare year-over-year numbers, it could release the relevant info with little additional work. Though they're obviously not required to, it's quite odd, and I would argue more than a little hypocritical, that a trade group representing publications which scream so frequently about "transparency" wouldn't do so.

Cross-posted at BizzyBlog.com.

Tom Blumer
Tom Blumer
Tom Blumer is a contributing editor for NewsBusters.