Time for circ remedy

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Magazines face one slight problem in fixing circulation issues-publishers and advertisers often aren't on the same page.

Magazine circulation debates often come down to points of contention about audit rules, rate bases and selling subscriptions on the cheap. But the best solution could start with publishers if they focus on the value of the product to advertisers and readers.

Advertisers run ads to reach customers, so advertisers should be interested in those magazines that can most efficiently reach the desired audience. Magazines can best prove that story with bulletproof research and full disclosure. Advertisers could move the discussion along by assuming a magazine doesn't believe its own pitch if data and disclosure are lacking.

At least in theory, readers are willing to pay for magazines because they get value both from the editorial content and the ads. Readers who buy a high-priced subscription or pay the cover price at a newsstand are voting with their wallets and are likely to recoup the investment by spending time with the issue. That's a story for magazines to tell their advertisers.

But some publishers dispute the link between reader involvement and price paid, and many argue that they already supply more than their share of data. "Publishers give up more disclosure than any other media," said Nina Link, president-CEO of the Magazine Publishers of America.

Publishing executives privately complain that buyers use one set of numbers-total audience counts, including pass-along readers-to buy magazines, but another-audited circulation-to evaluate those buys.

If magazines do disclose more than other media, publishers should play that to their advantage. Magazines have an opportunity to position themselves as the most accountable medium. Magazines could also have an opportunity in the next few years to take advantage of the unsettled nature of TV as the proliferation of channels and of personal video recorders will leave advertisers looking for alternatives to the 30-second network spot.

But magazines also must prepare for the future. TV data will improve, and the Internet's ability to target customers surely will get better; both media will have the advantage of showing advertisers audience data based on actual media usage by the survey sample.

Some things are working: Audit Bureau of Circulations auditors caught Gruner & Jahr USA Publishing's newsstand circulation overstatements at YM and Rosie. The problem is timeframe; YM's 2001 overstatements and Rosie's 2002 inflated claims didn't come to light till 2003. Michael Lavery, Audit Bureau president-managing director, said the bureau is pushing to reduce audit turnaround time, now down to an average six to 10 months. In a bow to advertiser concerns, new reports will allow for easier comparisons and percentage differences between publishers' claimed circulation and what the bureau found.

But even that might not be enough for advertisers seeking greater detail on where magazines get their subscribers.

Some publishers resist such changes. Demands for more disclosure "are driving up the cost of doing business for publishers," said Tom Masterson, worldwide circulation director at McGraw-Hill Cos.' Business Week.

Consider it a cost of doing business. Advertisers need the best information. Said Michael Browner, executive director-media and marketing operations at General Motors Corp. and Audit Bureau chairman: "We advertisers want as much disclosure as we can get." Mr. Browner said the board-advertisers, agencies, publishers-is in the best position to settle how much disclosure is proper. In the last major rule change, publishers gained flexibility in the price they could charge for a subscription, for example, in exchange for revealing the average price paid per subscriber.

It's in the long-term interest of publishers to give advertisers what they need to make the right decision: market-leading data, research and metrics that prove a magazine's worth.

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