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May 05 2011

14:30

The newsonomics of the new ABCs of journalism

Editor’s Note: Each week, Ken Doctor — author of Newsonomics and longtime watcher of the business side of digital news — writes about the economics of news for the Lab.

This week brought us the long-worked-on new counting metrics for American daily newspaper journalism.

ABC, the Audit Bureau of Circulations, has long provided The Number.

The Number — really The Numbers, a daily number and a Sunday number — have been the reader numbers dailies measured themselves by, twice a year, spring and fall. Who’s up, who’s down, who’s number one — it’s really a horse-race number, simple to report by the publishers and simple to report by those covering the industry. Of course, The Number has been in horrific decline. Take a look at the State of the News Media circulation chart (a third of the way down a long page) and you can see 15 straight reporting periods in single-digit decline, tracked since 2003. Clearly, circulation is still dropping, though it will take the next six-month comparisons, using these new metrics, to establish new benchmarking.

That’s one of the reasons The Number is gone — optics do count — but more importantly the nature of ad buying has changed dramatically in that same period. Newspaper ad revenues have been halved while online ad revenues will approximate newspaper ad revenues this year or next. While halved to $25 billion annually or so, newspapers, with the new ABCs, have made a directional shift to satisfying those advertisers; recall that even the New York Times, the digital leader with 25 percent of its ad revenues being digital, still depends on the print for three-quarters of its dollars.

So The Number is all but gone. Sure, there’s still “Total Circulation,” and that’s led some to do apples-to-apples comparison to the last set of numbers from last fall. It’s not a fruitful exercise, given the magnitude of the changes.

“ABC and the industry never intended that ‘total circulation’ to be a metric of success,” John Murray, the Newspaper Association of America’s vice president of audience development told me this week.

That’s because there is a now a whole raft of numbers, a new set collected by publishers, verified by ABC and used, over time, quite differently by advertisers. Trying to understand the difference between the old report and the new report is best done either dead sober or after a six-pack; anywhere in between may leave you wanting. I appreciate Poynter’s Rick Edmonds thorough picking through the changes, the new lexicon and taxonomy, and I won’t repeat his observations.

What’s significant to me about the changes are two big things, one theoretical and one practical, and therein, I think, lie the newsonomics of the new ABC report.

The big picture recognition here, as publishers and major advertisers have wrestled the new system to the ground, is that the age of simple mass is gone. Counting is increasingly about niche. How many of the readers are paid readers of print? How many read e-editions, and, of those, how many read replicas and how many read dynamic products? How many readers get free, but requested, packets of news and ads, and how many readers get the packets because they’ve been targeted (affluent households) just because of where they live? And there’s more nuance than that.

Just as the digital marketing world has increasingly provided agencies and advertisers with a trove of audience data, the print world is slowly responding. While advertisers can only track these differing print niches with differing coupon codes, or a spectrum of differing 1-800 call-in numbers, print at least can be niched in some ways, even though it doesn’t offer the intensive harvesting of data that digital does. Of course, the various e-alternatives, from “online” to tablet to smartphone, are offering advertisers the ability to say “I’ll take this, but not that” and to mix and match print and digital buying as never before. While advertisers could do some picking and choosing before, they were often flying blind and these new categories of circulation counting — verified circulation and branded editions to “requested” or “targeted” delivery — give them better data on which to make those choices. Consider the data advertisers get with this first report just the beginning of new sets of metrics to come.

On a practical level, we can see a couple of fundamental ways the new ABCs will impact the marketplace:

  • Sunday and preprints: Sunday Select is the flavor of the age, as companies from Gannett to McClatchy to Belo eagerly make up for declining paid Sunday circulation with packets of news and ads delivered to non-payers. “Paid is no longer the determinant of value,” says Murray — and that’s a huge change for an industry that long differentiated its ad appeal on the basis of paying customers. If readers opt in (“requested”), that’s a big plus for advertisers. Why? That shows “engagement,” that magic word all online publishers seek. Opt-out (or “targeted”) denotes a little lesser value, but since those being targeted are higher-demographic households, advertisers still like to reach them. In the new stats, though, they’ll be able to see how many paid, how many requested and how many targeted editions got distributed on Sunday. Some will try to differentiate results among the three. I asked John Murray where advertisers are at in tracking the differing results among paid, requested, and targeted, on a scale from one to ten. “I’d put them at 2s and 9s,” he told me, explaining with a couple of numbers how much in transition we are. Some — think Best Buy, for instance — are 9s, trying to track and compare everything, including differing print deliveries. Others are 2s, still essentially buying mass, but planning on doing more tracking over time.

Sunday is huge for newspapers, as a third or more of their revenue is driven by that one day. And preprints, or the Sunday circulars — all those glossy colorful ad inserts from the big box stores — are now make or break for that Sunday take. “Media [reading] habits are changing faster than ad habits,” says Randy Novak, a Gatehouse veteran and now vice president of industry research and relations for Geomentum, a local focused ad agency. “People like to touch those preprints.”

Let’s complete the value circle here. Who loves those preprints? Twenty-five to 44-year-old women, says Murray, and they are coveted consumers. Consider Sunday and its preprints to be the biggest raison d’etre of the new ABCs.

Further, add in a Wednesday or a Thursday midweek market day, says Novak, and you’ve got a newer, winning formula. We begin to see further definition of a strategy that is emerging at daily newspaper companies. That strategy: Sunday print/daily digital, especially tablet, as a coming subscription/ad satisfying program coming to a city near you by 2013-14 (“The newsonomics of Sunday paper/daily tablet subscriptions“). Or Sunday/Wednesday print, and the rest digital. We’re headed there, I believe, as the economics of advertising and the emerging reading habits of news readers merge to forge new revenue and cost-saving plans. (One thing to watch closely in the next sets of ABC reports: How well Sunday print paid is doing.)

  • Proving — and disproving — e-edition value: E-replica editions have been used by some papers to artificially pump up those sagging circulation numbers (“How much can we trust e-edition numbers?“). Publishers have told me privately that while they packaged — and counted — those replica products, only a small percentage of readers actively used them. Starting with the ABC fall report, there will be some effort to count usage — a nod to advertisers who figured out the scheme. In addition, we’re already seeing “replica” and “non-replica” parsed out, which should help separate out the e-chaff. More interestingly, as we see increasingly nuanced reporting of specific tablet and smartphone usage, we’ll be getting an emerging picture both of how news is really being read and how marketers can effectively read readers via these new platforms.

Just as we’re moving away from the One Number for print, we’re emerging from a time of counting those rudimentary uniques and pageviews online, with time spent digitally the big issue of the day for all publishers, but especially for those trying to sell those digital subscriptions. Where we may be headed: Time on Brand, as the biggest — and/or best — news brands try to satisfy readers, and bring along marketers to serve them — on a changing-through-day array of devices.

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