Measuring audiences, not coincidentally, can turn up the kind of growth that has almost completely eluded newspapers' paid print circulation for years. So newspapers may have a point, but they've also got little choice. And it's far from clear that advertisers are ready to let go of the traditional, relatively concrete "paid" metric that adds up newsstand sales and subscribers.
"I don't disagree with the push as circulation is, at best, holding steady among many print titles," said Eric Blankfein, senior VP-channel insights director at Horizon Media, putting himself in the position of a publisher. "From a buying perspective, it's a currency that diminishes in value as audience becomes less intended, more incidental and, ultimately, less engaged," he added. "Unless it can be proven and illustrated to the contrary, total audience is a tougher sell."
Newspaper publishers heard that firsthand last May, when Macy's ad chief at the time, Anne MacDonald, told an industry conference that paid circulation is what matters. That's because the brand wants to reach its target customer repeatedly through a platform that matters to her. "What we try and do is make sure that we talk to her on a continuous basis," she said.
Even if looking to audiences makes sense, the number of newspapers actually sold still matters, said James C. Goss, media analyst at Barrington Research. "Part of it is in the engagement," he said. "If someone sits down with a newspaper for 20 minutes, they actually view the ads as a friend. It's different online."
Like newspapers, magazines have pushed advertisers to recognize their audiences beyond paid circulation. But they haven't come up with an Audit Bureau of Circulations product like newspapers' new report, called Audience-Fax, after the bureau's familiar Fas-Fax paid-circulation report. The bureau published Audience-Fax in conjunction with Scarborough Research and the Newspaper Association of America.
"It is the most aggressive effort up until now to make the credible case that it's audience that matters," said John Kimball, senior VP-chief marketing officer at the newspaper association.
Paid still matters
Paid circulation remains an important metric, Mr. Kimball said. "In fact, because we have people who are willing to pay for consumption of the print vehicle, I think that's a strategic strength of ours," he said. "Even though that audience may be declining, it's still very strong and very healthy, so that's an important metric to hang on to."
On the traditional metric of paid circulation, newspapers continued to suffer. Only four of the top 25 U.S. newspapers by paid circulation reported bigger Monday-through-Friday averages for the six months ended Sept. 30 than the equivalent six months last year. USA Today, the largest daily, expanded paid weekday circulation by 1.04%; the Los Angeles Times, at No. 4, grew by half a percentage point; The Philadelphia Inquirer, at No. 16, added 2.31%; and No. 22, the St. Petersburg Times, was essentially flat but technically up 0.04%. Weekday declines materialized at The Wall Street Journal, down 1.53%; The New York Times, down 4.51%, partly because of price increases; The Washington Post, down 3.23%; and the Chicago Tribune, down 2.9%.
But growing advertiser demand for big ideas, solutions and programs means paid circulation can't be the only subject worth talking about, Mr. Kimball said. There are other family members in that subscriber's house who also read the paper; their kids may be reading it on the web.
"I do think we can change that dialogue from 'How many units of the newspaper did we sell today?' to 'How can we help you reach your audience and your customer?'" Mr. Kimball said.