Choosing what to measure
The UK publishing industry operates a dual system that measures both audience reach and sales - is it time for a change? By Raymond Snoddy
Newspaper executives would be less than human if they didn’t ponder sometimes the possibility of ditching print circulation figures and instead put down all their chips on readership.
Readership is good, particularly the readership delivered by PAMCo (the Publishers Audience Measurement Company).
Readership maximises numbers and often delivers growth, sometimes on a routine basis, while all print sales numbers can manage to do, usually, is take a downward tailspin where success is measured in the avoidance of double digit decline and the gloom and negativity is pervasive.
Why does the industry continue to beat itself up in this masochistic way, giving its enemies a big stick to wield?
PAMCo’s latest cross-platform audience figures show that 94 per cent of British adults consume newsbrand and magazine content over the course of a month. Eight of thirteen national titles reported growth for goodness sake between June and July 2019.
It still seems like an outrageous idea to even consider dropping the historic gold standard of hard copy titles from the ABC (Audit Bureau of Circulations), although according to Mediatel News, publishing industry bosses have indeed been debating the future of the dual system.
Should ABC figures still be used as a planning and trading currency following the launch of the more expensive and arguably more sophisticated PAMCo readership system?
After all, a number of American publishers are already putting their emphasis on total readership across all devices.
In an interview for InPublishing magazine last year, Alexandra Villoch, publisher of the Miami Herald, part of the 21 title strong McClatchy group, said the company no longer talks about print numbers - only overall readership.
“Readership is what we measure. This is all part of the transformation (of newspapers). TV doesn’t ever say how many TV sets were turned on and radio doesn’t say whether the radio was turned on,” the Miami Herald executive insisted.
The US is a different market but the point is clear.
The Miami Herald and its associated Spanish language daily accounts for 1.1 million readers a week, more than 52 million page views and what amounts almost to a TV channel with 5.9 million video views mainly on mobile.
That is what the Miami Herald sells - not its presumably diving print circulation.
You can understand why the question is being asked of hard copy in hard times, but does it make any sense?
My view, at least for now, is not very much sense.
Publishers can’t have it both ways. They can’t turn up to industry conferences trumpeting the latest research extolling the superior nature of print in everything from impact and trust to dwell time, while at the same time trying to play down the reality of declining circulations.
If there is any logic in their position it should be to redouble their efforts to shore up print sales as a central virtue of publishing in the face of apparently intractable generational and technological change.
If print can be stabilised as a sort of anchor tenant while online and mobile continues to expand, it could start to take the shape of a partial virtuous circle even if the lines don’t quite meet.
The numbers thrown up by PAMCo on individual titles behind the massive 94 per cent monthly total are fascinating.
In particular the popular press seems to be doing well, presumably with an enormous nudge from mobile.
The Sun grew its total brand reach by 10.5 per cent to almost 33 million across print and digital, with the Daily Mirror up 8.4 per cent to more than 27 million.
The fact that we are living in the most interesting of times must surely help with at least one really big significant story guaranteed every day.
If you are bored with the news at the moment then you really are bored with life.
If there is a Brexit dividend – or deficit - it is difficult to perceive.
The Daily Mail is down 18.8 per cent over the quarter while still producing a huge reach of 25.3 million.
Is the significant decline caused by what many see as the continuing, unthinking pro-Brexit propaganda?
Difficult to argue because the Daily Telegraph, which critics would argue is often engaged in a similar exercise, retains a 21.5 million reach of which only 2.9 million is in print. This is down only 5.1 per cent over the quarter, though more over the year.
The Mail's decline is perhaps more a victim of a Google algorithm change - at least that's the view of the publisher's head of search engine optimisation.
The digital-only Independent recorded the strongest growth in the quality market, up by nearly 18 per cent in the quarter to reach 22.9 million mainly on mobile.
Recent research has, however, found that although the Indy is on the whole flourishing as a digital only publication, it has suffered a serious loss of dwell time compared with its print existence.
And that is an indication of why publishers were right to support the ABC, costing £3.8 million a year, alongside the more expensive PAMCo which costs £5.8 million.
At a very superficial glance there may be an element of duplication, but readership and reach are not the same as sales.
One acts pretty much as a check on the other and it is surely in the long-term interests of newsbrands that the strongest forms of currency are presented to the advertisers who still pay most of the bills.
These same advertisers and their planners must be lured away from spending so much of their money on unreliable, unverifiable and the sometimes down right nasty expressions of social media.
It is worth a bit of overlap and a very few million pounds extra to be able to say we have the best possible sales and audience data in the UK.
It can and should be used as a positive weapon against online sites with no independent verification of their numbers, or their supposed readers or viewers, many of whom may not even exist.
Facebook has come under attack many times for the poor quality of its numbers, multiple miscalculations and video views counted in fractions of a second.
There may come a time when the decline in newspaper print sales is so great and the remaining numbers so small that it no longer makes economic sense to trundle physical copies of newspapers around the country.
But that time is not now and may not come – if ever - for years ahead.
Until then it would be wise to celebrate, and pay for ungrudgingly, the professionalism of both the ABC and PAMCo.
Raymond Snoddy will be interviewing editors of three of the UK's leading national newsbrands on a panel at Mediatel's Media Leaders Lunch next week, debating a mix of media, business and political themes. More info here.