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Readership v Circulation

15 Sep 2009

Publishing Edge spoke to Gordon Towell, CEO of the Audit Bureaux of Australia, and when asked where circulation data sits in the industry accountability mix he responded: "At a time when readership methodology is being questioned by some sectors of the industry, audited circulation data remains the cornerstone of print media accountability and the metric used by both advertisers and agencies to determine and validate their spend."


Gordon Towell weighed into the debate in a column penned for The Australian in which the question was posed, "Which is the most important data set for the media industry?"

"I was recently left in little doubt that this remains a serious question even though it's been a topic of some debate for many years. What concerned me more was a statement made recently that circulation data would in future become increasingly less relevant. Whilst admittedly biased as the current CEO of the Audit Bureau of Circulations, I reject that notion entirely.

As long ago as 2002, John Hartigan, head of News Ltd delivered a speech, (at the 70th anniversary of the ABC) which questioned the methodologies used by Roy Morgan in their readership surveys. He couldn't easily reconcile the fact that movements in circulation and readership data didn't always align and noted the lack of transparency. It seems that some seven years later, not much has changed.

It's easy to understand why some observers in the media industry were - and continue to be - unhappy. There is a view that readership data in Australia is open to question because it is not independently verified or audited. The data can fluctuate from one period to the next for reasons that are not clearly understood or articulated. Speculation is that these fluctuations reflect the differing sample sizes and demographics of the interviewers and interviewee rather than the publications true readership.


A few months ago The Newspaper Works entered the fray with a tender for a readership service and were also presented with ideas by the MFA on the rationale for increasing the frequency of circulation reporting by the ABC. Both these moves were not without controversy. Yet the bulk of the industry seems to back the need for more transparent and qualified circulation readership data that is independently audited.

It is worth noting that circulation data has been collected in a transparent and industry agreed manner for over 70 years. The auditing rules are open and can be reviewed by anyone in the industry including publishers, agencies, media buyers and advertisers. The data is audited by qualified CPA and CA auditors to ensure strict compliance with the measurement methodology to ensure best practice. As a result all players in the industry have absolute confidence that the data is correct, and that the methodology and process by which it is gathered is both transparent and credible.

That's not to say though that circulation data has reached its full potential. Nick Keenan, head of print at Mediacom highlighted concerns from the media buyers when he recently said: "We beg newspaper barons for access to existing daily circulation reports". He then went on to say, "Imagine being able to co-ordinate a media plan knowing the exact fluctuations on a daily basis, and then being able to drill deeper into the sectional readership and present that level of intelligence back to the client."


Just this week, two industry association powerhouses MFA and AANA, presented a white paper at the ABC AGM about the industry's desire to improve the granularity of circulation data and its ongoing frustration that few positive steps have been taken to bring print circulation data in line with TV, Radio and media channels.


In the white paper, the organisations called for publishers to recognise and support the importance of circulation data as a valued measurement tool in the planning, buying and evaluation process. They also appealed to the publishers to step into the arena on this issue and become willing partners in reporting circulation figures for each specific issue of a magazine and/or newspaper.

This request from the MFA and AANA is one that will be debated at an ABC publisher's forum in the coming weeks. Issue specific reporting as it's known, is common internationally and indeed our new ABC eData system already has the ability to deliver the desired reports.


But back to my opening question - readership or circulation? Is readership data important? Of course it is - Roy Morgan is a professional company providing a rich source of data across a range of metrics.


However, there is absolutely no doubt that circulation data remains a vitally important measurement of choice for publishers and media buyers both today and in the future. With the addition of audited web traffic data alongside print circulation, the ABC is well placed to extend the usefulness of circulation data by summarising the distribution of content via all media.


Perhaps the question should not be which is preferred - it should be when will the two sources offer the same level of transparency and accountability?"



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