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Easy as ABC?

The ramifications of the monthly ABC figures stretch far beyond the circulation department and affect the mood and sense of well-being across the whole company. In recent times, these figures have given little cause for celebration, yet there is good news to be told. So, asks Martin Ashford, how can ABC reporting evolve to better reflect the more diverse media landscape in which we now operate?

By Martin Ashford

They’ve been a feature of industry life for nigh on 80 years, are widely used as a benchmark, keep analysts and auditors happily employed for days at a time and have probably been the making or the downfall of more than a few editors and circulation managers. But if they didn’t exist, would you want to invent them?

“Not in their present form” might be the consensus answer. And in case you are still wondering, I am talking about our dear old friends, the monthly newspaper ABC figures.

No one outside Berkhamsted finds ABC rules exciting. And yet the debate which is going on in various quarters about the future of these numbers connects with some of the biggest questions that our industry faces. How can advertisers best reach their target audience in a shifting media landscape? What is the value of a newspaper brand in a multi-channel market? How do we respond to the tectonic shift from print to online readership?

The difficulty lies in making the connection between these big-picture questions and the nitty-gritty of circulation measurement. The former are the stuff of debate around board tables while the latter is left to nerdish types like me to sort out. No managing director of a UK newspaper is going to want to read an ABC rulebook, and rightly so. Yet the decisions aggregated into that rulebook can have an impact right up to the boardroom, just as commercial decisions taken at the board have repercussions for the circulation counters.

Measuring the frees

As an example, take the case of ‘frees’. Historically, the UK ABC rules for both national and regional newspapers (two different rulebooks, by the way) excluded free circulation, with the implication that frees were of no or lesser value. Regional freesheets had to report their figures under the VFD brand, rather than ABC. Then along came Metro and changed the rules of the game, and the Manchester Evening News devised a ‘part-paid, part-free’ model which simply didn’t fit with any existing listing.

So, are frees valuable or not? Surely that isn’t a question for ABC to answer. If a publisher can show advertisers a commercial proposition based on free distribution (as Metro clearly did), and decides strategically that its best interest lies in that direction (as more recently the Evening Standard has), then surely the only sensible response is that the reporting and audit rules should be adapted accordingly. Which indeed happened in the cases mentioned, first by creating a whole new listing (Bulk Distribution) to accommodate Metro, and eventually by modifying the regional newspaper rules to allow for both paid and free circulation to be reported.

That feels like a success story, albeit not one delivered overnight. The problem arises when the measurement and reporting rules become fossilised (at which point they may prevent, rather than facilitate, the publisher taking sensible commercial decisions) or when the external environment is changing so fast that the rule-makers simply cannot keep up. Arguably, we have reached a situation in the national newspapers sector where both concerns apply.

This is the moment to declare my own interest. As UK circulation director of the FT, I have an obvious interest in what we report and how we produce those figures. In addition, I sit as a representative of the Newspaper Publishers Association on the Rules Steering Group (RSG) for national newspapers at the ABC. But it is certainly not my intention here to betray any confidences from that RSG and the views I express in this article are my own personal opinions.

Legacy vs Strategic

There are two sets of issues surrounding the national newspaper sector and its rulebook. One can be termed the ‘legacy’ agenda, the other the forward-looking or ‘strategic’ agenda, and the industry (both publishers and advertisers) has to find ways of addressing the two in parallel.

The strategic agenda is all about the big issues that I mentioned earlier. News organisations exhibit the odd characteristic that we have more readers and users than ever in history but, for almost all of us, traditional sales of the printed product are falling. The ‘quality’ daily titles saw a drop of almost 8% in their print sales in the second half of 2010 compared to a year earlier (excluding from the figures the distorting effects of bulks). And yet the Guardian, as an example, had over two million unique browsers of its website each day, roughly ten times as many as bought the product in print. We have a terrific story to tell as an industry: a story of growth and expansion across the globe and across a multiplicity of channels and devices (such as the iPad), but it is a story that is getting buried under the monthly doom and gloom of the traditional paid newspaper figures.

The obvious counter to this argument is that, for a print advertiser, the only thing of interest is the number of printed copies sold. Actually, I don’t think that is entirely true: even from a purely print perspective, there is surely benefit to the advertiser from the halo effect of online success, strengthening as it does the perception that a title is worth reading and carries influence. Also, ABC reporting has an audience that extends well beyond print advertisers. Both internally and externally (think Roy Greenslade), the numbers are used as a proxy for brand health and indeed industry health. And, while they are telling a true story, it certainly is not the whole truth.


Time, then, for the reporting rules to evolve? Without question, yes. But that process has been hindered by conflicts over the legacy agenda. It is revealing no secret to say that the national newspaper RSG has been virtually deadlocked for years, with very few changes to the rules in response to either advertiser or publisher requests. There is a palpable sense of frustration on all sides about this. From the viewpoint of advertisers, the legacy agenda is mainly about getting more transparency into titles’ reporting, such as being able to see some of the daily granularity that sits behind the monthly average figures. For publishers, the priority is to loosen up what is currently perceived as an over-prescriptive rulebook, long in pettifogging ‘thou shalt nots’ which limit our commercial freedom.

What would happen in the (perhaps unlikely) event that a national title wanted to go part-free and part-paid? It is hard to see how they would get the required rule change approved. Yet my own view is that it is no business of ABC itself, rival publishers or advertising industry bodies to dictate commercial policy to a title. It should be automatically possible for new methods of distribution to be reported, so long as it is technically feasible to measure and audit them reliably. And, to address the advertisers’ point, so long as there is transparency over the outcome. This is the way that our online colleagues have long operated: their equivalent of the RSG is charged simply with deciding how to define and measure online data and, so long as that can be done, the publisher is free to report it through ABC.

As we continue to sit around an industry table to thrash out the future for our ABC reporting, what principles should we follow? Here are my top five:

1. “If it can be measured, it can be reported” or, as a former boss of mine used to say, “anything goes but everything shows”. I believe there is a developing consensus around this, although we still have to work through its corollaries: an RSG which does not attempt to decide what is ‘worthy’ of reporting, and a rulebook focused on ‘how to’ rather than ‘thou shalt not’.

2. Greater transparency of data, clearly implied by the first principle, although tempered by some common sense. The FT sells in at least a hundred countries round the world, with a network of dozens of distributors, and it is simply not cost-effective or even feasible to report everything at the nth level of detail.

3. The ability to tell the ‘big story’ about our brands and their reach. That means creating a reporting environment which enables online, mobile, apps and other non-traditional expressions of our content to be shown and reported alongside print. It also means that, again within the bounds of common sense, it should be possible to add online and print figures together. Adding copies sold to page views does not make a lot of sense; but adding together the number of online and print paid subscriptions is entirely feasible and indeed already allowed by the US ABC. At the FT, we already issue our own version of this, audited independently, which has just broken 600,000 paid global daily readers for the first time.

4. With greater richness of data goes the need to migrate ABC reporting away from static paper-based reports to an online reporting environment. There is a growing consensus for this already.

5. Recognition that we all need ‘horses for courses’. No two titles are the same. No two advertisers, either. For the FT, sales outside the UK market are a vital part of what we do and what our advertisers buy. Does it work the same way for the Daily Express? I think not. So let us embrace this diversity and accept that different parties need different cuts of the data. The logical end-point of this thinking is that perhaps there should no longer be a single ‘headline’ ABC figure defined in the same way for all titles.

So, there is plenty to grapple with both between publishers and as we meet with other industry participants. Does there need to be change? Most certainly. Will it be as easy as ABC? Sadly not. But there is a real win here for everyone if we get it right, and I am confident that we will see some major steps in the right direction in the coming months.