Struggling industry throttles newspaper metrics
They effectively have stopped reporting on the metrics that make it possible to measure – and, therefore, understand and manage – the industry’s ongoing challenges.
Earlier this year, the Newspaper Association of America, an industry-supported trade organization, decided to stop producing the quarterly revenue reports that have charted the advertising slump that has carved aggregate industry revenues from a record $49.4 billion to $22.3 billion in 2012.
As reported here, my analysis shows that ad sales slipped about 5.5% in the first six months of the year. Assuming the industry does no better or worse in the last half of the year, it is on track to deliver approximately $21 billion in ad sales for all of 2013.
The NAA, which publishes sales records dating to 1950 here, promises to release a once-a-year revenue report scheduled to debut in March, 2014.
While the revenue picture may come into greater focus next spring, a series of changes in the way newspapers report readership has made it impossible to authoritatively compare ongoing changes in circulation.
As has been customary for years, the Alliance for Audited Media, which formerly was known as the Audit Bureau of Circulation, today announced the publication of the second of its semi-annual circulation reports. But this time, unlike all the others, the organization gave no clue as to whether circulation had gone up, down or sideways in the six-month reporting period.
Because publishers no longer are “required to report the same information, it is not possible to come up with a macro [circulation] number,” said Neal Lulofs, the executive vice president of AAM in a telephone interview.
Owing to a series of changes adopted by the industry-funded organization over the years, publishers no longer have to provide a five-day average of daily circulation. They also have the liberty of counting a woman who reads the paper in print, on her office computer, on her personal laptop, on her tablet and on her smartphone as five separate subscribers.
Some newspapers take advantage of these options and others do not, eliminating seemingly forever the possibility of comparing apples-to-apples data across the industry – or even from year to year for the same publication, if it changes its reporting standards over time.
Notwithstanding the limitations imposed by the inconsistent data, a few hardy analysts have been trying to gauge the public appetite for print newspapers as it has declined over the years.
One of them, Ken Goldstein of Communications Strategies in Canada, pegs weekday print circulation in the United States at about 38 million copies, as compared with the 43.4 million subscribers reported in the Editor & Publisher Yearbook for 2012.
The E&P number, which closely matches the last-available AAM data published this spring, appears to include both print and digital editions. Thus, the E&P data are not precisely comparable to Goldstein’s estimate.
Setting aside the discrepancies in the admittedly imperfect data, one thing is clear: Newspaper circulation today is at, or below, its lowest level in modern history.
The oldest available records from E&P show that weekday newspaper circulation averaged 41.4 million papers per day in 1940, as compared with 38 million to 43 million today. Daily circulation, btw, peaked at 63.3 million in 1984.
But there is a big difference between 1940 and now: The population is a lot larger.
Back in 1940, newspaper penetration actually surpassed 100% of households, because some families took more than one paper per day. Today, with the number of households three times greater than in 1940, there’s a paper in only one out of three homes.