Minding The ABCs

Anyone who’s learned another language that uses the Latin alphabet knows that there can be confusing nuances in how to use different ABCs. The same can be true in the newspaper industry despite a common language.

ABC in the newspaper industry refers to Audit Bureau of Circulations. The confusing nuances are between how the American one and the British one deal with online traffic.

Last month, the American ABC announced that in November it would begin publishing reports that combine the print newspaper circulation and the online traffic for those newspapers’ web sites. The British ABC told MediaGuardian.co.uk that it has no such plans. The MediaGuardian described the American ABC as having “a reputation for being more experimental with its rules and metrics around circulation figures.” Well, if what the American ABC is doing is experimental, it’s best labelled alchemy.

The American ABC is desperately searching for some way to make gold despite American magazines’ and newspapers’ declining readerships and circulations. A decade ago, it permitted publications to prop up circulation figures by combining actual paid circulations and the unsolicited ‘bulk circulation’ of unsolicited editions slipped under hotel doors or ‘donated’ to schools. Or at least it did until the prop broke in the circulation number scandals earlier this decade. It now wants to combine daily print circulation and weekly or monthly online traffic numbers. I’ve frequently written (for example) about such temporal sleight-of-hand.

Because the American ABC won’t actually publish these new reports until November, I can’t actually condemn a practice that hasn’t yet happened. However, if the prototype report the American ABC released as an example is any example, the sleight-of-hand resembles Three Card Monte.

The prototype report is for a imaginary daily of 31,514 weekday circulation somewhere in Illinois. The ABC also imagines that this small newspaper also delivers an electronic edition (i.e., digital replica edition) that sells 125 copies daily—which is about how many the Chicago Tribune, a newspaper ten times large, actually would. But it’s the prototype’s arithmetic about this imaginary newspaper’s website that bothers me. It shows a website that generates 700,000 monthly page-views from 279,764 monthly users. I know that several years of surveys of American newspapers’ websites by Belden Associates have shown that the actual number of online users is generally averages about half of this size newspaper’s print circulation total. So, this 31,514 circulation daily must have a phenomenal site it can generate almost nine times more readers than the print edition, nearly 18 times what the Belden Surveys would say!

Moreover, 700K page-views generated monthly by 279,764 unique users indicates that the average user sees at most five pages monthly on the site. Is that good for a daily?

The prototype report then reports that the newspaper’s online readership during the past 30 days within its ‘Newspaper Designated Market’ (a geographic area selected by the newspaper itself and encompassing at least 75 percent of the newspaper’s total paid print circulation) numbered 40,597 people and within its even wider ‘Designated Market Area’ ( a standardized television viewing market as defined by Nielsen) included 45,108 people. I wonder where the other 234,658 monthly unique users came from? Neighboring states? Foreign usership? Mars? The 83 percent of the web traffic to this small newspaper in Illinois apparently comes from outside its own market.

If the American ABC cannot publish a prototype report that has internal consistency, will it be able to publish actual reports that do. We’ll have to wait until November to find out.

Another Reason For Journalists To Work Online
A recent survey by the recruitment firm PFJ of 4,299 media workers in the UK found that online journalists there currently earn more money than their print counterparts. For example, the survey found that online staffers with two years experience earned around £20,000 per year but that print reporters earn £18,000 with the same amount of experience. The gap widened with even more experience. Online journalists with three to five years experienced earned approximately jumped £35,000 per year, while their print compatriots earned between £24,000 and £30,000. After 10 years of experience, the divide continued to widen, with local journalists reporting salaries of £40,000 and both online and consumer journalists reporting £60,000.

I haven’t yet seen an equivalent US survey.

Laudable Victory, But Also An Example of A Changing Battlefield
Because I’ve been working in online publishing long enough (part-time since 1990 and full-time since 1993) to know where bodies were buried, I often see things that publishing companies today herald as an innovative successes to be instead examples of long-term loss. Battles they’ve lately won in a war they’re very much losing.

Sometimes I hear about these battles a bit late. An example is how Conde Nasté Interactive is using YouTube.com. Conde has created ‘branded channels’ on YouTube for the British editions of Vogue, Glamour, em>GQ,and Brides magazines.

That’s laudable. Yet it’s also more examples of how publications are having to adapt to no longer drawing as much traffic as ‘pure-play’ portals such as YouTube.

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