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What do ABC’s new circ guidelines really mean?

On the surface, the Audit Bureau of Circulations’ most recent numbers regarding newspapers look as if the industry’s prayers have been answered. According to the most recent semiannual FAS-FAX and Audience-FAX report, which was released on Nov. 1, the decline in newspaper circulation has stopped, and in some cases, has even reversed.

But the numbers may be deceiving. The ABC’s new guidelines take into consideration newspapers’ digital circulation, as well as print. Media Decoder reported that papers like the Dallas Morning News, Denver Post, New York Times and Wall Street Journal all showed growth in digital circulation during the most recent six-month period ending Sept. 30.

The ABC’s new guidelines specifically take into account online replicas of newspapers, digital e-reader editions and other digital subscription materials readers must pay for. It also includes branded editions of papers, according to Media Life Magazine. But what do these new numbers really mean?

According to Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst and the author of Poynter’s Biz Blog, the meaning is still somewhat uncertain. In a blog post, he wrote that the new circulation numbers should not be considered up or down, but sideways, because there is nothing to compare them to. They simply broaden the spectrum of what is counted as paid circulation and total distribution for newspapers.“One might suspect an agenda of changing a bad story,” he told inVocus in an email interview. He added that some of the rule changes do make certain numbers go up and make newspaper circulation numbers look better.

But times have obviously changed. The old way of calculating newspaper circulation and distribution by having one number for paid daily subscriptions and one number for paid Sunday subscriptions is not necessarily sufficient for the newspaper industry anymore, he said, especially with iPad editions, digital editions and paywalls becoming increasingly common. “It seems to me beyond argument that the new rules are a much better match to what newspaper organizations have become and where they will go in the future,” he said.

While these changes in circulation numbers will not be reflected in revenue for newspapers right away, Edmonds said the new guidelines are positive for advertising in the long run because there will be greater detail on readership, which helps advertisers sell space. “So while the complexity is a little annoying to reporters on the [newspaper] business, it’s a positive to the ad community,” he said.

Regardless of whether these new guidelines end up being more than just a way to cosmetically boost circulation numbers for newspapers, Edmonds said the industry still needs a better way to calculate digital statistics. “If this is a first step in that direction, that’s another good thing,” he said.

–Julia Russell

On the surface, the Audit Bureau of Circulations’ most recent newspaper circulation numbers look as if the industry’s prayers have been answered.

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