Magazine circulation remained roughly flat in the second half of 2012 as digital editions grew again but remained a small contributor to the whole, according to new figures from the industry's chief arbiter of circulation.
Paid digital editions in the second half increased approximately 147% from the second half of 2011, according to the latest twice-yearly report from the Alliance for Audited Media. That means digital now comprises about 2.4% of the industry's total circulation. A year earlier, digital was under 1%.
Magazines with the largest digital circulation include Game Informer, Maxim, Cosmopolitan, National Geographic, Reader's Digest, Taste of Home and Popular Science. Maxim reported average digital circulation of 259,529, up more than 50% from 171,688 in the second half of 2011.
Magazines' overall paid and verified circulation in the second half declined a nominal 0.3% from a year earlier, the Alliance for Audited Media said. "Verified" refers to certain kinds of circulation served to public places like waiting rooms or to selected individuals who don't pay but can opt out.
Publishers' main trade group, however, quickly argued that paid circulation is an incomplete gauge of magazines' health. "There's going to be a lot of chatter and a lot of ups and downs because everyone's in transition," said Mary Berner, president-CEO of the MPA, as soon as the numbers came out Thursday morning. "But I think my point of view is that circulation averages are one important aspect of how magazine media is measured but really they don't tell the whole story."
Only 65% of magazines reporting to the Alliance of Audited Media filed anything about digital circulation, Ms. Berner said, suggesting that there is more out there than it seems. "What is even more incomplete is that it doesn't capture audience, which is like saying we're going to judge a television network's ratings by the number of TV sets in households," she said. "It's an old way to measure. Unfortunately it's the only way we've got right now."
"If you look at total audience numbers, while it's not in this data, the footprint for magazines has increased year over year and continues to grow," Ms. Berner added.
Paid circulation remains the yardstick for matters like ad rates, not to mention a factor in magazines' bottom lines. Single-copy sales still matter too -- if gradually less so as they decline and other channels improve.
"If you go back a number of years, when it was harder to generate subscriptions and easier to generate newsstand, that's the measure people would hold out," said David Carey, president of Hearst Magazines. "Today the subscription piece is easier and the newsstand piece is a bit harder."
"But the newsstand channel is a very important one," Mr. Carey said, noting that it comprises 16% of Hearst's total. "It is a point of entry for a lot of future subscribers, for people who are sampling the brand."
Hearst has been looking for ways to turn tech toward its advantage, even in print -- concentrating for example on selling print subscriptions through the web and better targeting prospects through data. To reach shoppers in checkout lines who once flipped through magazines but now pull out cellphones, Hearst has experimented with putting codes on covers urging shoppers to scan them with their phones. And the company has expanded its efforts deeper in stores, setting up a co-promotion between Coca-Cola and Cosmopolitan.
Single-copy sales at Hearst declined just 1.9% from the second half of 2012, according to the company, aided partly by a 14% gain at Woman's Day, a 10.4% gain at Food Network Magazine and an average of 310,000 newsstand sales for the fledgling HGTV Magazine. Electronic editions increased 61% but remain about 3% of Hearst's total, which grew 2.3%, the company said.
Cosmopolitan, the country's biggest newsstand seller, saw single-copy sales drop 18.5% but overall circ dip just 0.5%.
At Rodale, the publisher of magazines such as Men's Health, paid and verified circulation edged up 1.2% as digital paid subscriptions grew 384% and single copy sales slipped just 1.2%. Women's Health increased newsstand sales 9.2%, the company said.
Conde Nast said paid subscriptions grew 1.6% as print subs declined 0.8% but digital subscriptions grew 253%. Single-copy sales fell 11.3%. The company's overall circulation held roughly flat, down 0.2%.
At Time Inc., People magazine's single-copy sales fell 12.2% but the title's top-line circulation increased 1.9%.