Tag Archives: circulation

More on those inflated digital circulation numbers

Jon Chesto of the Boston Business Journal takes on a subject that I tackled recently: trying to make sense of The Boston Globe’s paid circulation figures at a time when no one seems to know how to count print and digital sales.

As Chesto and a number of us have observed, the Alliance for Audited Media (AAM), whose numbers are considered to be the industry standard, has gotten carried away with digital subscriptions, allowing the Globe and other newspapers to count some subscribers two or even three times. Chesto writes:

This potential for discrepancies and confusion is one reason why the AAM board, which oversees how newspaper circulations are reported to advertisers, is weighing whether to tighten its rules.

It’s hard these days to get a precise number for unique paying subscribers, a figure that AAM was generally able to provide, back when it was known as the Audit Bureau of Circulations, and readership was essentially measured by the number of copies sold.

There’s no question we need a standard that everyone can agree on and that makes sense. Paid digital has enabled the Globe to improve its circulation numbers, and that’s fine. But the AAM system is so out of whack that it’s in danger of not being taken seriously.

The challenge of counting digital subscribers

UnknownHow many digital subscriptions has The Boston Globe sold? According to Globe spokeswoman Ellen Clegg, there were 45,971 “digital-only subscribers” in September — an increase of nearly 80 percent over the 25,557 who had signed up a year earlier.

That sounds impressive. But it’s a pittance compared to the numbers compiled by the Alliance for Audited Media (AAM), which recently released a report claiming the Globe had an average of 86,566 digital readers for its Monday-through-Friday editions for the six-month period ending Sept. 30.

The difference is in how you count digital subscriptions. I’ve written about this before, but the AAM’s methodology is becoming increasingly controversial, as some readers are being double- or even triple-counted.

Here’s how it works. As Clegg says, the number reported by the Globe represents only customers who have signed up for paid online access through the BostonGlobe.com website, the iPhone app, the ePaper replica edition or an edition for e-readers like the Kindle.

If anything, that methodology undercounts digital readership. For instance, we pay for home delivery of the Sunday paper, which entitles us to digital access at no extra charge — and that’s how we read the Globe Monday through Saturday. Yet according to Clegg, because we have not specifically purchased a digital edition we are counted as Sunday-only print subscribers.

By contrast, under the AAM methodology you could sign up for seven-day home delivery of the print edition — and if you also regularly log on to BostonGlobe.com at work, you’d count as a digital subscriber as well. If you download and use the Globe iPhone app to check the headlines while waiting for the subway, well, there’s a good chance you’ll be counted again. Joshua Benton of the Nieman Journalism Lab recently broke it down:

AAM wrote a blog post in May explaining that a paying print subscriber at a paywalled newspaper can actually count as two “subscriptions” if publishers provide proof that the subscriber activated their username and password for digital. And there’s no reason to stop at two: “each digital platform,” like an iPhone app, can count as its own sub too.

And in a considerable understatement, Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon — noting that the AAM methodology allowed USA Today to claim a 67 percent increase in paid circulation — wrote that “the new figures make many comparisons challenging.”

The good news for the Globe is that paid circulation more or less held its own during past year even if you use the paper’s own understated figures. From September 2012 to September 2013, print circulation of the Monday-through-Friday edition fell from 180,919 to 166,807, according to the AAM. On Sundays it fell from 323,345 to 297,493.

But when you factor in  digital-only subscriptions, the Globe had a paid Monday-through-Friday circulation of 212,778 this September, up from 206,476 a year ago — an increase of 3 percent. On Sundays, total paid circulation declined from 348,902 to 343,464, or about 1.5 percent.

The picture looks considerably brighter if you use the AAM’s figures. By those measures, Monday-through-Friday paid circulation at the Globe rose from 230,351 to 253,373, an increase of about 10 percent. Sunday circulation rose from 372,541 to 384,931, or 3.3 percent.

What is the most accurate measure? The AAM figures may be exaggerated, but it’s also clear that the Globe’s measurements undercount paid subscribers — especially Sunday-only print customers who read the paper online during the rest of the week.

My best estimate is that paid circulation at the Globe is stable or growing slightly. And though digital advertising is not nearly as lucrative as its print counterpart, the far lower costs of digital publishing should help John Henry and company offset the loss in ad revenue.

Certainly Boston Herald publisher Pat Purcell must be looking closely at the Globe’s strategy. According to the AAM, paid circulation of the Monday-through-Friday Herald dropped by 9 percent, to 88,052, over the past year. The Sunday edition fell by 7.5 percent, to 71,918.

At the Globe and the Herald, what’s up is down, etc.

On Tuesday, the Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC) released data showing that the Boston Globe’s paid circulation is rising thanks to digital subscriptions, and that the Boston Herald’s is falling. (Here is how the Globe covered it.)

Today the Herald counters with a story claiming that the reverse is actually true, citing a private report from Scarborough Research.

It’s an exact replica of what happened six months ago. So if you’d like some perspective on the ABC numbers, click here; and if you want background on the Herald’s pushback, click here.

Just to be clear, the ABC figures are public and are widely regarded as the industry standard. If you read what I wrote earlier, you’ll see that there’s some double-counting going on with respect to print and digital subscriptions. But what ABC is doing is transparent and understandable to everyone.

I would love to read the Scarborough report. But unless it somehow magically appears in my inbox, I have no way of parsing the findings that the Herald cites.

Globe versus Herald: Scarborough edition

About a month after the Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC) reported that the Boston Herald’s paid circulation was falling and the Boston Globe’s was rising, the Herald today offers the results of a new Scarborough survey that claims exactly the opposite.

OK, not exactly the opposite — the Scarborough report counts total print and Web readership, not papers and digital editions sold. Overall, according to Herald reporter Frank Quaratiello, “The Herald’s print and Web audience rose 6 percent while the Globe’s combined audience dropped 6 percent.”

Unlike ABC reports, I do not have access to Scarborough surveys, which clients such as the Globe and the Herald pay for. So I’m not in a position to endorse or dispute the Herald’s take. (But if anyone wants to send me a copy …)

And though it doesn’t merit its own item, I’ll note a final Globe-versus-Herald brief for today: a Herald story quoting an unnamed union source who says the New York Times Co. is shutting the Globe’s suburban bureaus in the near future — “another sign that the Big Apple company is setting the stage to sell the Hub broadsheet.”

More: I should note the latest ABC figures, which show the Globe’s total paid circulation on Sundays is 365,512, whereas the Herald’s is 81,677. On Monday through Friday, it’s 225,482 for the Globe and 103,616 for the Herald.

For Web traffic, the best I can do is Compete.com, whose overall numbers are suspect, but which has some usefulness in terms of making apples-to-apples comparisons. According to Compete, the Globe’s free Boston.com site attracted 2.8 million unique visitors in April, compared to 1.2 million for BostonHerald.com.

It depends on what you mean by “bureaus.” Update: The Herald story refers to the Globe’s “remaining suburban bureaus.” But two Globe sources tell me that the Globe only has one — in Danvers.

For newspapers, a digital break from the bad news

It’s hard to know what to make of the latest numbers from the Audit Bureau of Circulations given that the New York Times gets credit for a paid-circulation boost of 73 percent. Yes, it makes sense to add print and digital subscriptions together. But some of the numbers reported on Tuesday are anomalies that won’t be repeated once digital subscriptions grow into maturity.

Still, good news is good news. Thanks to digital subscriptions, the Boston Globe registered a 2.5 percent circulation boost on Sundays (now 365,512) and a 2.9 percent increase on weekdays (225,482) — the paper’s first increases since 2004. Those numbers, though, do rely to some extent on favorable ABC rules when it comes to counting digital readership.

The Globe reports 18,000 digital subscriptions. ABC gives the Globe credit for about 33,000 digital readers. The difference is that the 18,000 figure counts Globe readers whose only subscription is digital. The higher ABC figure encompasses those whose subscriptions include some combination of print and digital — “engaged home delivery print subscribers who access BostonGlobe.com at least once per week,” according to an email from Peter Doucette, the Globe’s executive director of circulation sales and marketing.

Boston Herald publisher Pat Purcell has talked about a paid-subscription model for his paper, and I’d imagine that talk is likely to increase after Tuesday. The Herald’s daily paid circulation fell by 12.3 percent, to 108,548; on Sundays it declined by 6.2 percent, to 81,925. In its own story today, the Herald emphasizes the popularity of its free website, traffic to which it claims is up 25 percent over the past year.

One point the Herald does make in its rather snippy account of the Globe’s numbers is that paid digital circulation simply isn’t as valuable to advertisers as paid print circulation. That’s true, and, if anything, the situation may be deteriorating. According to newspaper analyst Alan Mutter, the share of online advertising going to newspaper websites dropped to an all-time low in 2011.

What that means is the question of who will pay for journalism remains as vital as ever. The newspaper business is proving that at least some of its users are willing to pay for online news. Will there be enough of them to make a real difference — and will they be willing to pay enough to offset the continuing loss of advertising revenues?

Those are questions that will have to be answered. For now, we should all be glad that the issue is whether the new circulation numbers are as good as they seem. That’s a nice break from wondering if the bottom is about to fall out.

Sunday morning coming down (but not by as much)

Stories about declining newspaper circulation have become so routine that they’re hardly worth commenting on unless some deeper meaning can be found. So I’m looking closely at the latest figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulations, which show smaller losses for the Boston Globe and the Boston Herald on Sundays than on weekdays — especially in the case of the Globe.

The Globe’s weekday circulation for the six-month period that ended on Sept. 30 was 205,939, a drop of 7.5 percent. On Sundays, it was 360,186, down just 2 percent.

At the Herald, weekday circulation is now 113,798, a decline of 8.7 percent. On Sundays, it’s 85,828, down 4.8 percent.

Significantly, the period in question precedes the Globe’s new print-and-digital strategy. The Globe charges less to take home delivery of the Sunday paper and receive BostonGlobe.com for free than it does to subscribe to BostonGlobe.com seven days a week. At the Globe, as at most newspapers, the Sunday edition is by far the most profitable, and the idea is to preserve Sunday print no matter what.

It will be interesting to see what effect this strategy has on print circulation when the next figures are released in the spring of 2012. Needless to say, the real threat to the Globe is the possibility that readers will content themselves with the paper’s other website — the still-free Boston.com — and not pay for anything online.

The numbers also suggest that the Herald needs a better digital strategy of its own. Although the tabloid has a nice iPhone app (my preferred method for reading the Herald), its website is in serious need of an upgrade. For those who want to read the entire paper electronically, the Herald’s only offering is a hard-to-navigate electronic edition that’s basically a PDF of every page.

If the Herald were to offer an easy-on-the-eyes, reasonably priced digital option, I would pay for it. So, I suspect, would a lot of other people.

Globe, Herald circulation continues to slide

The Boston Globe is the 25th-largest Monday-through-Friday paper and the 20th-largest Sunday paper, according to the latest figures released by the Audit Bureau of Circulations. Both the Globe and the Boston Herald continue to slide. And the Wall Street Journal enjoys the largest Monday-through-Friday circulation nationally, while the New York Times is tops on Sunday.

Locally, the most interesting news is that the Globe’s circulation has stabilized following a huge plunge between 2009 and 2010, which followed significant price increases. Those increases have reportedly improved the paper’s bottom line, but have left the Globe with a much smaller subscriber base.

The Globe’s paid Sunday circulation for the six-month period ending on March 31, 2011, was 356,652, down 22,297, or 5.9 percent, over the six-month period ending on March 31, 2010. The Monday-through-Friday picture was similar: 219,214 in the most recent reporting period, down 13,218, or 5.7 percent.

By contrast, the Globe’s circulation figures for the six months ending on March 31, 2009, were 466,661 on Sunday and 302,638 Monday through Friday, meaning that Sunday circulation last year was down 18.8 percent over the previous year, and Monday-through-Friday circulation was down 23.2 percent.

Over at One Herald Square, circulation during the past year dropped at roughly the same rate as the Globe’s. On Sunday, circulation is 87,296, a decline of 4.1 percent. The Monday-through-Friday editions averaged 123,811, down 6.6 percent. Two years ago, paid circulation at the Herald stood at 95,392 on Sunday and 150,688 Monday through Friday.

Both the Globe’s and the Herald’s circulation figures include exceedingly modest numbers for their paid electronic editions, which were folded into their total paid circulation.

Finally, the Globe reported 6.8 million “total uniques” for its website, Boston.com, whereas the Herald did not report. According to Compete.com, which counts unique visitors per month differently, Boston.com over time has attracted an audience about two to three times larger than that of BostonHerald.com.

The next big story will be what happens when the Globe begins charging for online access to most Globe content later this year. Will it slow or even reverse the decline of the print edition? Will paid electronic editions such as GlobeReader and forthcoming apps for the iPad and iPhone get a boost? How badly will the paywall hurt Web traffic? Stay tuned.

At the Globe, higher prices, lower circulation

If you take a look at the new list of the top 25 daily newspapers in the United States, you might notice something odd: the Boston Globe, a longtime fixture, has disappeared. In fact, the Globe’s weekday circulation has plunged so much that it now sells fewer papers than the Oregonian, the San Diego Union-Tribune and Newark’s Star-Ledger.

In a memo to Globe staff members that was obtained by Media Nation, publisher Chris Mayer says the latest figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulations show the Globe’s weekday paid print circulation is now 232,432, down 23 percent from a year ago. On Sundays, a category in which the Globe is still a top-25 paper, circulation is 378,949, a decline of 19 percent.

Circulation continues to drop almost everywhere. But the Globe’s particularly steep decline was the calculated result of a 30 percent to 50 percent (depending on the geographic area) hike in home-delivery rates, Mayer writes. The move is credited with helping to stabilize the Globe’s shaky finances. And it drove even longtime print subscribers like the Media Nation household to switch to home delivery on Sundays only; the other six days we subscribe to GlobeReader, a paid electronic edition of the paper.

Mayer also reports that the local audience for Boston.com, the Globe’s website, is up 16 percent over the past year.

I don’t have any hard figures for the Boston Herald, but Jon Chesto of the Patriot Ledger reports that the Herald’s weekday circulation fell by 12 percent over the past year. That would put the Herald’s Monday-to-Friday current circulation at about 140,000. Sunday circulation at the Herald was about 95,000 a year ago.

The full text of Mayer’s memo follows.

Dear Colleagues,

As you may know the ABC March Fas-Fax six-month circulation numbers were released today, and as we anticipated, the Globe has shown significant year-over-year declines, as a result of our pricing strategy instituted last summer.

The Globe’s circulation, now at 378,949 on Sunday and 232,432 daily, still leaves us the most dominant newspaper in New England. The year-to-year decreases of about 19% on Sunday and 23% daily were just about what we budgeted. We raised prices last summer in most areas by 30% to 50% to grow circulation revenue and stabilize the business.

To stress the point, these decreases were forecast and taken into account before launching our strategy. We set out in this direction not only to cope with the effects of the recession on advertising, but to compensate for the structural shift of advertising to the Web.

In terms of readership, also included in the ABC Fas-Fax report, we reach 32% of all adults in the metro market on Sunday and 20% each weekday. In contrast to our print circulation declines, Boston.com’s local audience grew by 16%. When you factor in Boston.com, our readership is even more impressive. Currently, during an average week, the Sunday Globe, the daily Globe and Boston.com together will reach more than half of all adults in the metro Boston area.

We are also developing additional news platforms to attract audiences. For instance, our mobile product usage is growing considerably, as is our recently launched app for the iPhone. We launched GlobeReader, and are working full-speed on other initiatives. Our goal is to be available wherever and whenever the consumer wants – on whatever device they prefer.

No local media can point to such a large audience or dynamic media portfolio. It’s heartening to know that hundreds of thousands of adults choose to rely on the Globe’s quality news each and every day, and that the newspaper has a core loyal audience who is willing to pay a premium for our product.

Thank you for your continued commitment to our mission.

— Chris

A double whammy for the newspaper business

In my latest for the Guardian, I argue that the long-predicted newspaper-circulation death spiral now under way wouldn’t be such a big deal if online advertisers weren’t fleeing newspaper Web sites as well.

On a cheerier note, Jonathan Knee writes in Barron’s that recession and crushing debt are masking the fundamental soundness of many newspapers — especially monopoly papers with a circulation of 100,000 or less.