How The ABC Counts Weekly Online as Daily in Print

Should a newspaper be allowed to include its Web site’s paying subscribers among its count of print circulation?

In a remarkably wimpy decision earlier this week, the U.S. Audit Bureau of Circulation has allowed The Wall Street Journal to do exactly that. The ABC let the WSJ add 290,412 paying subscribers of to its count of 1,800,650 print subscribers. This auditing sleight of hand boosts the WSJ’s ABC circulation to 2,091,062 ‘daily‘.

The Problem: Most of those 290,412 subscribers don’t actually get it daily. For example, the average subscriber visited that site only 5.41 times during July, according to Nielsen/Netratings. That’s equal to a visit once every six days. By contrast, the 1,800,650 print edition subscribers get it daily.

When a reader purchases a single printed copy only once per week at a newsstand, the ABC doesn’t count that weekly reader as a daily reader. So, why is the ABC trying to count weekly online readers as daily print subscribers?

Because the ABC for the past five years has been bending over backwards to please newspapers that increasingly want to bend its auditing rules. Ironically, a WSJ spokesman stated the following only four years ago:

    “No one is disputing the accuracy of the counts or of ABC’s audits.

    “It’s just that the lines keep shifting at ABC about what’s being counted as paid circulation, and how what’s being counted gets presented.

    “The rules have gotten more and more complicated, and made intentionally more subject to manipulation by those papers that have a high percentage of free or highly discounted issues.”

Yes, or newspapers that want to boost their circulation figures. Without those 290,412 subcribers, the WSJ‘s ABC circulation would have shown no growth during the past year. But by including them, the WSJ now is the fastest-growing newspaper in America, up 16.1 percent.

There is some specious logic to counting paying online users as paying print users no matter how infrequently they access content online: After all, not every print subscribers reads his print edition daily. However, the Readership Institute at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism last year found that 65 percent of the average newspaper’s subscribers read their print editions daily. In a 31-day month (such as July), that’s equal to 20.15 usages per month — nearly quadruple’s usage.

The ABC has now allowed those 290,412 approximately weekly online reader to be counted as daily subscribers. Why didn’t it include all 686,000 paying subscribers of Because 395,588 of them already subscribe to the WSJ in print and the ABC didn’t want to count those folks twice as subscribers. So, it counted only the remaining 290,412 subscribers who don’t subcribe to the WSJ in print.

The ABC this week bent a rule to do so. Five years ago, it instituted a rule that digital edition subscribers who pay at least 25 percent of the print edition’s price could be counted as print circulation. This was known as the ‘Presspoint Rule’ and was meant to count paying subcribers of PDF-based digital editions (which the now-defunct Presspoint pioneered). Digital editions are electronically delivered daily to their subscribers, unlike Web site editions, which rely upon subscribers remembering to visit the newspaper’s site and electronically retrieve a copy — which they do in this case only 5.41 times per month.

So, the ABC once again has bent its rules to please a major newspaper.

Our recommendations: The ABC should count newspaper’s Web site subscribers and print circulation on separate lines in its auditing report.

But if the ABC must conflate print subscribers and Web site subscribers, then it should take the number of Web site paying subscribers who also don’t subscribe in print, divide that by their average daily visitation frequency, and add that arithmetic result to the count of print circulation.

Thus if the average among 290,412 paying online subscribers was 5.41 visits during July, then that’s a total of 1,571,129 visits during that 31-day month or 50,682 daily users. The WSJ‘s new ABC circulation would thus be 1,851,332 (up 3 percent this year), not 2,091,062.