Simple as ABC? Not any more for newspaper circulation

Amongst global headlines quite rightly dominating the news, it might have been easy to miss the recent announcement from the Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC), that national newspapers can now keep their print circulation figures secret. Circulation has long been a metric used as a sign of quality, and not only by competing publications. Advertisers, marketers and PRs have always had a keen interest in the ‘reach’ of a particular title. An interview with the company CEO, the argument goes, will have more impact, the more people see it. Advertising executives need to know which publications will deliver the best return on investment for their clients, whether they’re promoting stairlifts or craft ale. Circulation figures have been the lifeblood of many a PR presentation to the board. No longer. Now, the ABC has allowed the nationals to make circulation data available only to advertising agencies that sign non-disclosure agreements. Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers – the Times, Sunday Times and The Sun amongst them – made their choice quickly. Figures are now shown as ‘private’ on the ABC listings. The Daily and Sunday Telegraph cancelled their subscriptions to ABC a few months ago too, preferring their figures to be audited privately by one of the Big Four accountancy firms. Why is this happening? And where does this leave PRs? Firstly, the why. Print circulations have been declining steadily for decades, and Covid-19 has been no help. In the latest ABC figures, covering the period since lockdown began, most papers record circulation falls of up to 20 per cent in that time. And while papers may know themselves that there has been an accompanying ‘bounce’ in people accessing their content online, this still – incredibly – has no agreed-upon way of being recorded by the ABC. Faced with yet another beating to their circulation figures, the Bureau has no doubt decided that a little privacy might buy a lot of favour from its fee-paying members. Secondly, where does this leave PRs? In short, we need to be smarter. The landscape of media metrics has been changing for a long time. You’re as likely to record the online ‘unique monthly views’ of a paper’s website as you are to dig out the official print numbers. A piece being tweeted out by the journalist themself is as good to see as its publication in the first place. But now, the ‘reach’ of content needs to be analysed more closely than ever. The sentiment of a piece is a good place to start – mentions of your clients are all well and good but not if they’re being namechecked in an article bashing their industry. Audience too – a million Sun readers are (probably) unlikely to want to buy your client’s B2B SaaS product. But a well-placed piece of editorial in a trade magazine with a fraction of the circulation has a far better chance. Finally, while there is still room for the traditional ‘feel’ of the impact of PR for a business, sensible metrics that show value during this period of disruption will outshine scattergun figures. The answer, after all, may lie in quality, not quantity.