Evaluating an Audience: Measure Twice, Cut Once



It should tell you something about the state of media today that if our largest national newspaper was a TV show, it wouldn’t even last four episodes before being canceled.*

So why are we about to bring up an inequity in newspaper measurement?

Because one of today’s single biggest issues within the television industry has to do with the “when” of an audience. There are entire conferences based upon time-shifted viewing and how to responsibly measure the currency. In TV, we’re reasonably satisfied with the “who,” at least for the moment. Yet a recent story has come up that makes us wonder how many “who’s” are being counted in some newspaper circulation figures.

Specifically, many newspapers are championing their “branded” circulation, which is essentially a combination of their print and digital circulation. For several years, this was what the Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC) was reporting. Beginning in 2012, the ABC will break out print and digital circulation figures separately – but will likely remain the way newspapers report their circulation for “trending purposes.”

So when a paper like the Boston Globe touts their paid circulation increase, they’re basing that upon 33,000 paid subscribers to their digital edition – representing a 2.9% increase of their brand’s paid readership. With the reduction in print subscriptions factored in, the advertising audience is actually down to below 200,000 per day. That’s actually a 10% drop in readership. Furthermore, if you’re only adding 33,000 new readers to your digital news property in a highly educated, upscale market of over 6 million people, perhaps your circulation isn’t the best barometer of what you’re able to offer an advertiser to begin with.

Citing this aggregate audience number will certainly give you one measure that may be marketable, their brand vitality. But what it won’t give you is an accurate picture of advertising delivery. And that, in actuality, is what audience numbers are really for in the first place.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but the only real audience numbers that mean anything – circulation, viewers, listeners, click-throughs, etc. – are there as a measure of how many people may have been exposed to the ad embedded within the content.

There are two concerns with how some newspapers use the ABC data:

  1. Duplication. The average digital circulation was just over 14% of total newspaper circulation. Newspapers are experiencing massive cannibalization of their core print product. To combat this, major papers have instituted a metered paywall, offering those readers with a print subscription access to their entire digital content slate. Because of this, newspapers saw up to a 73% increase in their apparent circulation – although it’s hardly a representation of their unduplicated audience. The fact is, you’re mostly only getting the same people twice.
  2. Few “paper” ads appear in the digital versions. People just aren’t seeing the same ads. So whatever circulation increases that are being cited are doing nothing for the advertisers. A combined circulation figure which includes print content as well as digital content is only relevant if it’s a true replica edition – but that’s typically not the case. And even when the same advertising is included in the digital edition through an e-reader (all but the FSI’s), the experience of the advertisement is changed – people just won’t use a digital print ad in the same manner they would for a physical ad. There are no clip and saves, no tear outs.

You might even say that it could take an application of another old medium to duplicate the print ads - Silly Putty.


*NBC’s Free Agents averaged over 3.9 million total viewers per episode over three weeks – with 7 days of playback figured in. It was canceled before its fourth episode. The Wall Street Journal’s combined print/digital daily circulation is 2.1 million.

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