Giveaways hide true picture of newspaper circulation carnage

Last weeks’ numbers showing a reduction in the rate of decline of newspaper circulation was entirely as a result of publishers increasing the number of giveaway copies, analysis of the data by Mumbrella has revealed.

The numbers appeared to show newspaper circulation close to stabilising, with four newspapers actually securing slight increases. However, in every case, these increases were only achieved by giving away more newspapers. Excluding those copies, all four papers actually recorded a decline, while papers that showed slight declines actually experienced more dramatic falls in directly paying readers.

As well as directly paying individual consumers, newspapers can claim circulation for copies that are provided to airlines and hotels, educational sales, event sales and bundled sales.

When those numbers are excluded, the state of newspapers is worse than it appeared.

One of the most extreme examples is the weekend edition of Fairfax Media’s Australian Financial Review.

That paper recorded an apparent fall from 84,528 in the final three months of 2009 to 78,783 in the same period in 2010 – a drop of 6.8%

However, during the same period, Fairfax increased the proportion of copies sent to airlines and hotels from 4.26% to 6.79%. Excluding those copies, the paper’s fall would have been above 9% – down from just over 80,000 copies to just over 73,000 copies.

Excluding those types of copies from the papers that claimed a circulation rise, the Saturday edition of News Ltd’s Sydney-based Daily Telegraph moves from a rise of 1.46% to a fall of 0.8%.

Fairfax Media’s Sunday Age goes from a 1.05% rise to a fall of 1.9%.

And Fairfax Media’s Sun-Herald’s near-standstill 0.07% rise becomes a 3.8% fall.

The fourth paper to record a slight increase of 0.06%, the weekday edition of News Ltd’s Adelaide Advertiser, saw a fall of 2.6% without the help of those indirect copies.

There is no suggestion that any of the papers broke the rules of the Audit Bureau of Circulations as they stand. However, the summary numbers provided by the ABC that the trade press base their reports on – and which advertisers and media may rely on for their spending decisions – include the giveaway copies.

In addition, there is currently no way to tell from the numbers of paid copies what proportion are at full price, or something approaching it. As Mumbrella has previously reported, a major loophole is that annual subscriptions sold at such a tiny cost that the consumer has little incentive to collect the newspaper every day can still be bundled as a paid edition regardless of whether it actually gets into a consumer’s hand.

An ABC committee is currently discussing potential reform to the reporting regime although its expected pre-Christmas decision is now nearly two months late.

The reporting of anything but the headline number is a contentious one, with ABC members banned from stripping out the numbers when they discuss comparative numbers. Late last year, News Ltd was censured for pointing out that when giveaway copies are excluded from the figures, the Saturday edition of The Telegraph is neck and neck with the Sydney Morning Herald. Excluding giveaways, The Saturday Tele sells around 314,000 to the SMH’s 316,000. However, because of the extra giveaways, the Herald still seems to be well ahead of the Tele with a headline number of 341,041 to 327,177.

In countries such as the UK, the reporting standard is reversed, with the main headline number being the one where individual customers have paid full price for their copy either at the newsstand or by subscription. In Australia this number does not appear in the data at all – anyone wanting to know it has to work it out by removing all of the other types of sales. Even then they will not know if the customer paid full price.

Meanwhile, the metro newspaper with the biggest proportion of circulation coming from giveaways – just over 11% – is Fairfax’s Sydney Sunday paper the Sun-Herald. The last year saw jumps in all areas of giveaways for the paper. It includes 5.2% educational sales (up from 3.14% a year ago); 2.51% airline and hotel sales (up from 2.41%) and 2.35% bundled sales – up from 0.89%.


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