Publishers: It's time to 'fess up

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The Audit Bureau of Circulations did the right thing in tightening rules for magazines. Now it's time for publishers to come clean.

Many publishers have been less than forthcoming in explaining how recent rule changes affect their circulation claims, past and present. Some, such as Martha Stewart Living, are ready with precise answers. Others aren't so upfront. That's bad for the credibility of a title and damaging to the industry's image.

The problem is the sense that another shoe is about to drop. The faster affected magazines `fess up, the quicker the industry can get this issue behind it.

The Audit Bureau, citing "a lack of qualified sponsors and a lack of payment," in July ruled that magazines could not count as paid circulation the copies distributed through sponsorship programs run by Ebsco Consumer Magazine Services. That affected more than 80 consumer magazines (and a few trade titles, including Ad Age). It also disqualified paid circulation from sponsorship programs run by InFlight Newspaper and Magazine. That affected at least 20 magazines.

Upward of one-third of the 300-odd magazines that claim rate bases and belong to the Audit Bureau could lose circulation as a result of the rules change. Some 2.5 million-and possibly as much as 5 million-in paid circulation could be stripped way. The bureau is further tightening reporting rules for sponsored sales starting in 2006, improving the transparency of circulation.

Sponsored sales can be good for magazines, building awareness and drawing in more readers. Under new rules, magazines can use sponsors, but media buyers will have the information they need to judge the quality of that circulation. Anything the bureau can do to ensure that advertisers get what they paid for is good for advertisers-and good for the credibility of magazines.

With paid-circ rolls cleaned up, media buyers will be paying for more involved readers (at least in theory) and losing marginal ones. But the embattled magazine industry is doing a lousy job telling the good news, so buyers are left wondering about more bad news. Drip, drip, drip is not good to the last drop ... in circulation.

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