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ABC: Newspapers no longer forced to make circulation figures public

21 May 2020  |  David Pidgeon and Michaela Jefferson 
ABC: Newspapers no longer forced to make circulation figures public

ABC has today revealed new data reporting options for the circulation figures of national newspapers, including allowing publishers to opt out of making their figures publicly available.

Publishers who choose to report privately will continue to have their circulation figures audited to industry standards via ABC, but publication of the figures will be under the control of the publisher.

In further changes agreed by the ABC board - which includes publishers, agencies, advertisers and their trade bodies - newspapers will also be able to report optional metrics in addition to mandatory metrics, allowing publishers to "create the sales narrative that fits their strategy" while maintaining the comparability ABC data provides.

The monthly newsbrands reports will also be replaced by a rolling release of data throughout the month.

ABC said the changes have been made to "create a balance" in how national newspapers "tell their story of growth to the market", while ensuring agencies and advertisers have access to trusted circulation data.

“Keeping a JIC joined up sometimes requires compromise," said Derek Morris, chairman at ABC.

"However, all agree that the higher principle of independently audited figures to an agreed standard is critical and must be maintained. I believe ABC have protected this principal and found an agreed middle path.”

Commenting on the news, Phil Smith, director general, ISBA, which represents UK advertisers, said: “We fully support the changes announced by ABC today.

"These reporting updates will reduce the tendency for circulation to be seen as the only measure of newsbrands’ health in our multi-platform age, whilst ensuring that the comparability and trustworthiness of ABC data remains available to buyers.”

Meanwhile, Belinda Beeftink, research director at the IPA, representing agencies, added: “Our members spend millions on newsbrand print advertising each year, and it’s important their buying decisions are underpinned by industry standard data.

"The new reporting changes facilitated by ABC will allay publisher concerns and simultaneously ensure the continued provision of objective, independent data."

The news comes as the sector is expected to record an "atypical lockdown decline", and a short while after the Telegraph Media Group's announcement in January this year that it would be pulling out of ABC circulation audits, replacing the data with figures "independently assured" by PwC.

In 2019, Newsworks - the marketing body representing newsbrands - had also questioned the "narrative of decline" ABC audits tended to highlight in a multi-platform, digital market that attracts 20m online readers daily, and had appeared keen to shift the industry towards using PAMCo's multi-platform readership figures as a better measure.

Currently, the census-based ABC audits print and online circulation figures and is largely used for trading. Covering 1,200 titles, it also sets industry agreed standards and shows how published media reaches the market, in both print and online.

Meanwhile, PAMCo - which replaced the National Readership Survey in April 2018 - is audience-based and delivers the multi-channel readership of 128 news and magazine brands. It is used much more widely in the planning process at media agencies.

For various reasons no other media uses two different 'currencies', but published media requires the dual system to effectively audit, plan and trade against a set of agreed and trusted standards. Similar systems operate in other markets around the world.

"We need to ensure the way the industry is measured reflects the reality of our modern multi-platform news industry,” said Tracy De Groose, executive chair of Newsworks.

“This announcement from ABC gives the industry the access to circulation data it continues to need, while ensuring the focus isn’t on that in isolation. The focus has been concentrated on this single narrative for too long and now we have the opportunity to ensure a more holistic view.”

At 12pm on Thursday it will be possible to see which titles have chosen to change how they report, but News UK was one of the first to confirm it was moving to 'total brand reach' via PAMCo while adopting the ABC private audit.

Reacting to the news, Steve Goodman, founder of The Press Business and a previous MD of print trading at GroupM, told Mediatel News he was in favour of ABC working quickly to develop an approach that allows agencies access to the data in these exceptional times.

"I think they have done an excellent job in delivering a solution in a very short time-frame, but it does highlight the fact that the current way in which data is released does not really reflect how well a newsbrand is performing," he said.

"What I would like to see is a move to a headline number that combines print and digital, with all the contributing data being made available to agencies."

Meanwhile, Richard Marks, founder of Research the Media, said publishers will be rightly arguing that these are atypical times and the reporting time lag would leave them trading on "unrepresentative" figures for some time until things get back to a new normal.

Marks said for now those figures can presumably be kept 'need to know’, and that he was aware of other countries having similar conversations. However, he cited potential problems with the solution.

"If this was a temporary arrangement then that would make pragmatic sense, but as a permanent change, how will competitive media feel about this? If ITV’s big new drama flops, we all know about it by 9:30am the following morning and the headlines are written," he said.

"Might TV and radio be envious of this privacy option? Up to now the principle of shared measurement is that we understand the whole market. If the idea gets traction that elements of a measurement system can be redacted, then where does that leave the growing consensus around the need for transparency?"

Other commentators said the move - which as it was announced did not say which titles had chosen to publish privately - looks like newsbrands simply want to "suppress and diffuse" ongoing news of their plight.

"It’s curiously contrasted with the recent positive PAMCo narrative, where the inclusion of digital readership has boosted numbers and reach significantly," said Bob Wootton, a Mediatel News columnist and a previous ABC board member when he was director of media for ISBA.

"The customer representatives around the (now virtual) ABC Council table probably acquiesced on the basis that they simply don’t think it matters much any more."

Wootton said this could never have been ventured a couple of decades ago, but today advertisers pour "the big money" into online channels "with no editorial or standards and an equal disregard for rigorously-measured audience data."

"If only they paid more attention to where their money is going and why, but they don’t and get what they deserve - superficially cheap with 15% 'missing delta' completely unaccounted for. Never was caveat emptor more apposite."

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