For several years now, the regular updates from the body that tracks North American newspaper circulation have tended to be pretty depressing and predictable, with readership gradually marching downward. But the latest report, out today, is a bit different. The main tone this time isn’t so much depressing as it is downright fishy.
On the media site Poynter.org, the main headline about the latest numbers from the auditing body, known as the Alliance for Audited Media, says it all:
“USA Today’s circulation up 67 percent? Newspaper industry makes comparisons increasingly difficult”
In the accompanying story, Andrew Beaujon details how publishers have effectively lobbied the auditors to make all sorts of changes to their standards — most in the name of generating combined digital/print audience totals — that all but rule out apples-to-apples comparisons to previous performance. So these new tallies of audience basically have no context.
Writing on his Reflections of a Newsosaur blog, ex-newspaper exec Alan Mutter lumps the auditing changes in with some others recently made by the publishers’ own Newspaper Association of America in their tracking of ad revenue.
Unable to arrest years of declining ad sales and sliding print circulation, two key trade groups representing the newspaper industry have done the next best thing:
They effectively have stopped reporting on the metrics that make it possible to measure – and, therefore, understand and manage – the industry’s ongoing challenges.
If any other industry did this — if, say the auto industry made arbitrary accounting changes to render car sales activity inscrutable, or if a big supermarket chain revamped its grocery sales this way — the stories business reporters would write would be scathing, for good reason.
Of course, accounting tricks do indeed go on in other industries. But it must be said, every time we see this sort of gimmickry, even if it stays within the letter of the law, it always ends up hurting paying customers.
In newspapers’ case, the biggest effect is on advertisers, who pay out good money for placements based on the audience data. Ultimately, the gimmicks will also probably be bad for readers as well since, as Mutter points out, the gimmicks do nothing to solve the long-term problems that affect newsrooms’ public-service functions. You solve problems by first acknowledging them clearly, not obfuscating them as much as legally possible.
Using the increasing complexity of the digital world as an excuse for all this is also hogwash, by the way. For big-picture metrics, there are already standbys that work just fine — paid weekday and Sunday circ for a print edition, paid subscribers to a paywall, monthly unique visitors or pageviews for a free website, downloads from an app store for a native mobile app, and so on. It would also work just fine to publish these metrics side-by-side for any given individual organization, recognizing that its several publishing channels each work differently, and then let the advertisers judge for themselves.
The real problem isn’t that these methods are inadequate. It’s just that the publishers don’t like what those measures are telling them right now, so they’re choosing to pave over them instead.