Something is very wrong with the way print and digital magazine circulation figures are reported. This isn't news. But as digital editions grow in popularity, is the lack of clarity holding back innovation across the industry and highlighting analogue gloom rather than digital success?
We're in the bizarre situation where the UK Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC) figures do not tell the full story on digital magazines and the good news is buried under the same old headlines about print falling away as readers change habits.
I will now attempt a challenging feat by explaining what is going on:
-- The ABC has been publishing digital edition figures alongside print stats since 2010. They appear in section 12 of the six-monthly report chronicling the ups and downs of Consumer Media.
-- Here's the crucial bit: a "digital edition" under ABC's definition is a print replica. So the edition, usually a PDF-based version of the parent print brand, can have five percent less content but cannot have more than 25 percent additional content than the print edition.
-- To be included in the ABC report, the digital edition must be "inert", so it cannot substantially change or update (video clips are fine). As rule 18.2 on the ABC website puts it: "Whilst it may be reformatted to suit the different delivery medium it remains sufficiently similar to be considered the same product."
-- To keep ad buyers happy, display adverts that appear in print have to appear in the digital edition to qualify for ABC reporting (but you can sell digital-only ads). The ad buying community is an important lobbying voice in all this, sitting on the steering committees that decide how the ABC changes.
-- Digital publications - i.e. things with a beginning and an end but are not print replicas - have to go on their own separate certificate which ABC can construct for you, but this cannot be included in the overall ABC figure. Confused? You should be.
What does all this mean?
"For the first time in my life, the questions ‘What is your circulation?’ and ‘What is your ABC?’ are no longer interchangeable." Conde Nast International president Nicholas Coleridge tells Campaign. He adds that "the more go-ahead media buyers have been ignoring the ABC altogether and trading on the accurate combined figures."
I recently saw Conde Nast execs explain just how time-consuming their tablet publishing schedule is, thanks in no small part to those ABC rules.
So we have the perverse situation where Future's T3 title can report a headline figure (print+digital edition) of 47,000 but the company itself has to announce the total figure - including its interactive publication - of 65,000.
Quite reasonably, despite news coverage to the contrary, T3 has a good claim to the UK's biggest digital magazine. That we had to do so much digging to get to this stage tells its own story.
Taken across the company, this affect is huge:
And this problem is widely felt. Alex Watson, head of app development at Dennis, one of the leaders in app and digital edition publishing, wrote on his blog this week that Dennis served four million editions via its apps during 2012. It garnered no industry coverage and little comment.
Like Future, Dennis has developed its own bespoke tablet publishing technology - a system to quickly, effectively and cheaply launch and improve on digital products. The result? Men's Fitness raced to the top of the Apple Newsstand charts and Dennis tells us it was downloaded 36,000 times since Christmas, with almost 80,000 issues served since then. You won't see these stats in the ABC report.
Spare a thought for the professionals in digital publishing who get no credit for achieving such growth.
ABC = the problem?
I sympathise with publishers' criticisms of the ABC and clearly something is up, but, they should also ask how much they themselves are to blame. The ABC is happy to measure and quantify more or less anything its members want (providing its committees agree) - but perhaps the needs of ad buyers are weighing too heavy on this process.
The ABC remains the single most-trusted cross-industry measure of circulation and that doesn't look like changing any time soon. There is some truth in the ABC's argument that: "Much of the real value of ABC data lies in the level below the headline; not just how many, but at what price, where and through what channel."
But the result of continued confusion will be publishers seeking their own solutions outside the main ABC report. The FT, UBM Built Environment and now Centaur Media employ PwC's audience measurement system, as TheMediaBriefing has reported.
Lucie Cave, editor of celebrity weekly magazine Heat, writes in Media Week (emphasis is mine):
"The Heat universe now engages with 4.8 million consumers across all platforms, up from around three million a year ago. So despite a slight fall in our print magazine circulation, the brand, spurred by the rise in TV (average monthly reach of 2.2 million), radio (767,000 listeners a month, Rajar Q4 2012), mobile apps (60,000), online (1.4 million monthly users) and social (over 500,000) is now reaching more people, and has more advertising opportunities, than ever before."
It would take some radical change for a single auditor to measure all that.
The main story, of course, is that many people still buy and read print magazines, with 52.7 million copies bought or distributed in the UK during 2012. Digital is relatively small but rapidly growing - the traffic is one way, the transition is happening.
So it's time to start telling the good news story as well as the bad.