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E-readers, mobile apps, and iPads, oh my! ABC modifies circulation reports

This is a guest post from Rachel Farrell, Senior Manager, Print and Online Media.

Last week  the Audit Bureau of Circulations announced it will start factoring a newspaper’s distribution via branded editions (think: RedEye as a complement to the Chicago Tribune, or Briefing as a complement to The Dallas Morning News) into its total average circulation reports. Also included in the outlet’s total average circulation will be figures previously excluded from paid circulation reports, such as an outlet’s delivery to e-readers, mobile apps and iPads. This news has generated some buzz in the publishing world. Many question whether measuring a publication’s electronic distribution is an imprecise calculation that allows publishers to count one subscriber multiple times, thus projecting optimistic, but not necessarily realistic, circulation figures. Others have expressed concern that the new circulation reporting is a thinly veiled way for publishers to pad their circulation figures in an attempt to attract advertisers.

There is, however, a catch to all this willy-nilly circulation boosting: for those print media outlets that report digital figures as a part of their hybrid and bundled subscriptions, they must confirm that the digital editions were actually accessed during certain periods of time before they can be claimed as a part of their verified circulation. For example, from October 1, 2010 until October 1, 2011, in order for a digital edition to be counted as paid circulation, it must be accessed at least once within a six-month time frame. After that, the time frames get progressively shorter: they must be accessed once every quarter until October 1, 2012, and following that they must be accessed a minimum of once per week to qualify.

This levels the playing field a little, since it could be argued that just as there is no real proof digital subscribers are actively accessing their publications through electronic devices, there’s also no solid evidence a print edition of a newspaper mailed to 50,000 people is actually read by as many. How many editions of traditional newspapers sit on dining room tables for days on end before finally being migrated to the trash heap for a lack of time to read them? Probably just as many that get delivered to mobile apparatuses before being dropped in favor of Farmville.

In any case, circulation reports from the ABC will continue to detail out the total paid circulation for traditional print media outlets almost the same as it always has—it will simply appear in a separate place from the total average circulation figure. The changes are set to go into effect on October 1, 2010. What do you think?

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