Technological innovations in printing and transportation in the early 1800s allowed the mass production of publications and sped their delivery. Business practices, too, changed, with the introduction of the "penny press," where daily newspapers were sold for pennies on the street corner rather than through expensive annual subscriptions. By 1860, most publishers agreed that for general-audience periodicals, a large circulation covering a wide geographical area made better sense than a small, limited circulation. Fueling this publishing strategy was advertising.
By the late 1800s, advertising agencies, advertisers and publishers considered circulation the primary factor in evaluating a publication's worth. Advertisers began to demand accurate audience measurement, but newspaper and magazine publishers considered circulation figures a business secret and did not always give accurate numbers. Newspapers, for example, frequently padded estimates by as much as 15%.
In addition, publications gave out inconsistent rate structures, sometimes quoting different rates to a single client.
Trying to serve their clients, some agencies devised probable circulation estimates by combining information from rival papers and by analyzing population data. As the quality of the publication and the nature of the audience also became issues for advertisers, agencies established standards for analyzing such factors as the amount of advertising in a publication, newsprint quality, the number of issues printed and subscriber characteristics.
In 1869, George Rowell, a broker of newspaper space, issued the first circulation directory. His American Newspaper Directory listed more than 5,000 titles with circulation estimates for each. Mr. Rowell's Directory represented the first blow to inflated circulation figures and the first step toward standardizing and establishing baseline values for the purchase of advertising space. However agencies and newspapers questioned the circulation figures for the newspapers Mr. Rowell represented and the method he used to verify circulations.
In the late 1890s, several advertising associations were formed to address the problem of verifying circulations. The first groups were the American Advertiser Association (later the American Advertisers Association), formed in 1899, and the American Society of National Advertisers, covering the western U.S., which merged with the AAA in 1900.
The first attempts to verify the circulations of newspapers and magazines were not successful. Publishers resented having outsiders examine their business records, and advertisers resented having to pay for information they thought should be provided without cost. In addition, not all publishers used the same record-keeping systems. As a consequence, it was almost impossible to establish standardized figures. The process was extremely expensive for the AAA, and the organization folded in 1913.
In 1914, two other organizations began measuring circulations: the Advertising Audit Association, which was made up of publishers, and the Bureau of Verified Circulations, an organization whose board was dominated by advertisers. The two groups met in May 1914 and merged to become the Audit Bureau of Circulations. The organization's board included representatives from marketers and advertising agencies as well as publishers of newspapers, magazines and specialty periodicals.
At its initial meeting, the ABC established as its mission the task of providing "facts without opinions" about the circulation of any newspaper, magazine or trade, farm, business or other publication. The organization had a measure of power: it could suspend member publications for fabricating or padding their circulation figures.
Defining "paid circulation"
One of the first issues the ABC confronted was determining what constituted a publication's "paid circulation." In its simplest approach, a publication had a paid circulation if issues were paid for in cash. By 1916, the organization narrowed the definition to cover subscribers who received the publication by mail or carrier and who paid at least 50% of the regularly advertised subscription price.
Attempts to provide more meaningful information and equitable circulation standards have highlighted the bureau's subsequent history. For example, the ABC has grappled with the issue of measuring, and hence giving credibility to, publications distributed without charge to businesses and special consumer groups. In 1922, members voted to exclude from its audit those publications without paid circulations of 50% or more. In 1950, responding to pressure from magazine publishers, the ABC changed its requirement to 70% paid.
In 1951, the ABC board voted to require the breakdown of unpaid circulations into "copies to advertisers and agencies, samples to prospective advertisers, samples to prospective subscribers and all other unpaid," a move supported by media buyers. Others, however, primarily newspaper publishers, believed the move would dilute the ABC's principal task of measuring paid circulations. Although opposed by daily newspapers, the board voted in the late 1950s to provide analyses of the unpaid circulation of business publications.
The ABC still has its critics. Some advertising practitioners argue that circulation data alone do not help media buyers or planners assess a publication's worth. Rather, they suggest, factors such as the average price paid per issue, the average subscription term and the renewal rate are better indicators of a publication's quality. (Some publishers point out that average-price-paid data is easily manipulated.)
The ABC has remained the pre-eminent provider of information on circulations, although other companies now provide such data, including BPA International, formerly Controlled Circulation Audit, which began in 1931. Both the ABC and the BPA also audit Web sites, e-mail newsletters and attendance at trade shows. ABC maintains a Web site at www.accessabc.com.