If publishers care about transparency, why are they killing the audit bureau?

With publishers pulling out of the Audited Media Association of Australia, and debate kicking off around the body’s continued value to the industry, Mumbrella's Miranda Ward asks why the publishing industry isn't doing more to support the AMAA.

Transparency is the red-button topic of the wider media and marketing industry, from Dentsu Japan admitting it had overcharged Toyota for digital media to Facebook owning up that it had been overestimating the length of its video views – an admission that has the publishing industry up-in-arms.

Yet for an industry that claims it cares about transparency, its ongoing manslaughter of the audit bureau by a thousand cuts suggests a different story.

Audited Media Association of Australia AMAA logo - cropped wide

The problems began to pick up pace in July with Pedestrian pulling out of the AMAA’s website audit. Then Fairfax Media called it quits on reporting digital figures in August. Last month Bauer Media’s The Australian Women’s Weekly also withdrew from the website audit. And now CarAdvice has followed suit.

It might be said that the AMAA is on its knees but still praying for last minute salvation from the industry. But does the industry actually want to save it?

Print and digital circulation audits

Arguably, the AMAA is only just hanging on with its long-running print metric.

The metric’s most awkward problem is that every data release telegraphs the industry’s print decline.

Until a decade ago, each new set of ABC figures contained plenty of good news for every publisher to boast about, with more winners than losers.

But now it’s a story publishers aren’t interested in telling. On the newspaper front, both News Corp’s The Australian and Fairfax Media’s The Sydney Morning Herald saw their Monday to Friday circulations fall below the 100,000 figure for the first time in the most recent audit figures – a narrative which isn’t attractive to publishers, or their advertisers.

And things are just as bad for magazines.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that News Corp and Fairfax are in camp EMMA, with both publishers arguing readership figures are more relevant than sales figures. It’s helpful for the sales story of course that the EMMA definition of what constitutes a reader is a generous one.


Perhaps because of this, there’s still a lack of trust in the publisher-led EMMA metric amongst media buying circles, with a lot of agencies still using Roy Morgan Research readership numbers despite feeling these are not necessarily an accurate reflection of true audience figures either.

In the end, media buyers still need to have something to base their decisions upon when it comes to print. For that reason the print metric will remain relevant – at least for now.

The same cannot be said for the digital metric.

In August, Fairfax Media stopped reporting its digital subscriptions.

The digital metric was painting an embarrassing picture of quarter-on-quarter digital subscriber declines for The Age and the SMH, which contradicted its story to the ASX of being a long way down the path to digital transformation.

However, Fairfax argues it dropped the metric because it no longer followed the company’s commercial strategy and advertisers were not demanding the audited digital number.

Despite that Fairfax decision, The Australian’s CEO Nicholas Gray has committed the masthead to the digital audit.

“It’s absolutely worth it, the numbers are great. We’ll keep our digital numbers in that audit for as long as it exists in that current form,” he told me while on stage at last month’s Publish conference.

Nicholas Gray 5 The Australian Publish 2016 keynote

But of course he would say this, the audit currently shows his numbers are increasing – will he be of the same view if the audit starts to show a decline? After all, most of News Corp’s paywalled mastheads aren’t audited.

Fairfax argues its own digital number is transparent as it is produced internally by the company’s Business Intelligence Team for the ASX – which has its own strict rules around disclosure.

Web measurement

It’s a similar problem plaguing the AMAA’s web traffic measurement service, with publishers finding it irrelevant as a sales tool if their competitors are not being held to the same standards. Which is where the blame begins to fall on media agencies and advertisers who do not appear to be demanding an audited number from publishers before spending.


Wirasinha: Pedestrian.TV “didn’t feel the AMAA was living up to its goals due to a lack of market participation”

When Pedestrian pulled out of the web audit, co-founder Chris Wirasinha told Mumbrella: “We didn’t really feel it was living up to its goals due to a lack of market participation.”

It’s a view that has been echoed by CarAdvice CEO, Andrew Beecher, who said its support for the metric was “always contingent on being able to benchmark ourselves against our competitors”.

It’s a problem the AMAA needs to solve in order for its web service to remain relevant. If a publisher has an audited number but no contextual competitor numbers for media buyers, what does it actually even mean?

If an advertiser buys ads from a publisher on a CPM basis, a title’s overall audience may not mean much anyway.

And why pay to be audited if the transparency of doing so doesn’t give any sort of advantage over the less provable claims of a rival?

Wirasinha also cited a failure to keep up with consumer media habits as one of the reasons the youth publisher withdrew.

For youth publishers in particular this is big problem, and as audiences access their news from platforms such as Facebook and Apple News, it will be a challenge for other publishers when measuring their audience.

The AMAA says it is working with its counterpart in the US on a number of measures, and has also recently simplified its digital audit reporting.

But is this a case of too little, too late? Will a change entice resigned members to return, or more importantly help retain members?

Players left in the web audit include a number of trade publications published by the likes of Momentum Media, Key Media, Conexus Financial and Mahlab Media. It must be noted that the AMAA is more focused on small and medium publishers with its web audit, those publishers not big enough to be included in the more expensive Nielsen offering.mumbrella-logo-rectangular

Mumbrella is also a member of the AMAA, with its web site traffic measured, as are The Misfits Media’s B&T and Campaign Brief. AdNews is not.

But with audiences across all publications, including trade and more niche mastheads, coming from mobile and off-platform, the AMAA’s struggle to keep up is a clear problem.

Who owns the problem?

While it’s easy to point the finger at the AMAA, media agencies and advertisers also need to shoulder much of the responsibility.

Clearly, agencies and advertisers are not asking for clarification around figures or hard questions about why a publication isn’t audited. And the AMAA can only achieve a certain amount with its limited budget.

If advertisers don’t really care about transparent figures, why should publishers spend money on being audited? And, by default, why should it matter if the AMAA ceases to be relevant?

If the advertisers wants the industry to have metrics that are not dominated by media owners – which is the most likely result if the AMAA is killed off – they need to start asking tough questions of publishers who do not audit.

If advertisers and media agencies just can’t be bothered, then they will reap what they sow – an industry where the metric is owned by the media owners and it’ll be almost impossible to change this once it’s accepted as the industry standard.

So what does the AMAA need to do?

The AMAA needs to begin reacting to industry changes with speed. It needs to begin innovating and communicating with the industry about changes and what it can do to help while taking cues from what’s happening in the US and the UK.

The AMAA's US counterpart is the Alliance for Audited Media

The AMAA’s US counterpart is the Alliance for Audited Media

Time is ticking for the body’s relevancy and as publisher’s profit margins are squeezed further, a membership fee that provides insufficient value could appear to be an easy cost to cut.

If the industry cares as much about transparency as it likes to claim in the aftermath of Facebook’s video stuff up then there is still a need for an independent referee of publisher figures for the industry to be transparent.

Sure, according to the body’s own research it is the most trusted metric but trust doesn’t go very far if no publishers are actually paying to be part of that metric.

If the metric isn’t a complete picture, trust will quickly go out the window, and with it any hope for the AMAA’s future.

Innovation and consultation with the industry are the keys to the AMAA encouraging participation in the metric and it is participation is needed for the audits to remain relevant and trusted.

The industry is changing yes, and a debate is starting to happen right now about the role of the AMAA in the future industry but it’s up to the AMAA to state their case for its continued existence. And it’s up to the media agencies and advertisers to start asking questions around publishers’ claimed figures.


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