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Oct 15, 2004

Newspaper circulation figures

Stop the presses, late breaking news. Up to date newspaper circulations arrive, after 14 days of daily reports of television ratings and audience sizes across Australia.


Stop the presses, late breaking news. Up to date newspaper circulations
arrive, after 14 days of daily reports of television ratings and
audience sizes across Australia.

And those figures are for the six months to September.

Now that’s a line you won’t read in any of our mostly static or shrinking newspapers in this country.

Actually for all the money involved in advertising in newspapers, it’s a joke.

These newspapers are crying for greater accountability in political
life, transparency in business and sport and greater disclosure in
freedom of information.

And yet they are as guilty as any politician, public servant or
executive in obfuscation, providing out of date, hard to use

They are just as uninterested as any pollie, businessman or public servant in not being more transparent.

TV with around $3.2 billion this year in ad revenues is measured every
which way and more. On a daily basis in the five major metropolitan
markets, and weekly for regional Australia.

Only Pay TV remains ill-defined and imprecise but that reflects the
ownership of Foxtel. Telstra, PBL and News are among the most secretive
of companies in this country.

Newspapers, with a bit more than the TV figure in ad revenues (boosted
by classifieds) has no independent, accurate and fully transparent way
of measuring circulations and presenting that information on a timely
basis, like the TV ratings flow from the measuring companies (ATR and Oztam) to their
clients and the public.

The latest figures are 14 days after the end of the six month period.
They disclose reasonably good news for News Ltd and mostly bad
news (with the exception of Melbourne) for Fairfax.

With only the rare exception of Melbourne, the September quarter was
another mostly miserable quarter for the nation’s daily, weekend and
Sunday papers. And it was an especially dismal quarter for the Fairfax
group, who’s only bright spot was The Age reaching an average
daily circulation of just over 200,000 copies a day, the first time
that level has been reached in years. Here’s gospel according to the
Sydney Morning Herald.

But unlike the television networks, which have to withstand the daily
scrutiny of their performance and value to advertisers, newspaper
publishers still are reluctant to produce figures on a more timely
basis. And the figures they produce are an average per day over the

And the journalists who write for these papers have the hide to take
the networks to task, (or to trumpet) changes in ratings and audience
sizes for various programs, sometimes 24 to 36 hours after the programs
go to air.

Newspaper publishers claim they can’t do that

But aren’t they producing dailies, or weekend papers? Not many of last
Monday’s edition of The Australian Financial Review are selling today
are they? And not many Weekend Australians sell on the following
Wednesday, do they?

And yet they are allowed by the Audit Bureau of Circulations to average
figures, to produce publishers’ estimates. They are the ones where the
last two numbers in the circulation figures are zeros. For example the
Daily Telegraph in Sydney whose circulation fell in the September
half to a nicely-rounded, 400,000. While across town, the rival Sydney
Morning Herald
managed to produce a figure accurate to the last place:
a fall of 3.9% to 217,066. In the same amount of time as News!

If Fairfax can do it, why can’t News Ltd, which spent much of the Media
section in Thursday’s Australian taking pot-shots at Fairfax
after the Federal Election result. The Australian’s weekday circulation
rose 2.3% to a nice, rounded 133,000. Funny that!

One of the reasons newspapers say they can’t produce timely figures is
that returns from newsagents and other outlets take time to flow back.

Well, that’s only because the newspaper (and magazine companies are just
as bad) are tight- fisted about paying to collect their returns. They
depend on newsagents to process them(and many are insisting on agents
and other outlets sending the returns information in via the internet,
before the physical copies are returned.

And the returns do not go back to the place of printing. Quite often
they are sent to recyclers or holding yards associated with the
publisher or the distribution company. The returns forms in the bundles
are taken and processed against the information sent in via e-mail.

Its time-consuming and convoluted. But the companies could speed up the
whole process and make sure of quick, timely information if advertisers
and other groups started toughening their continuing campaign for a
more up to date and accurate flow of circulation figures.

Advertisers could withhold full payment until the accurate circulation
figures were sighted and compared, and adjustments made for any changes
in sales.

Newspaper companies would resist this. Their trading terms, even for
big clients are tough and they do not want to be seen to be the first
to make concessions to advertisers or their agencies on this issue.

News Ltd is especially hardline (as is ACP, part of PBL)

But news this week from the US might help adjust their thinking. Here’s
a New York Times report of a widening US Securities and Exchange
Commission inquiry into newspaper circulations. The Times is one of
those being probed.

The way publishers in Australia are allowed to present estimates with
nicely-rounded totals calls the accuracy of the figures into question.

The companies all have highly computerized printing and circulation
management distribution systems. The information is all there, just
waiting to be used!

Unlike TV and radio ratings there is NO transparency whatsoever in
measuring newspaper circulations(nor in the measurement of readership
which is of even greater uncertainty. Nor in magazines either).

Newspaper companies say this costs money and someone will have to pay.
Well, yes. Nothing is free. It will require clients and the companies
and other interested parties to set up a system similar in structure
and transparency to the TV ratings systems, and everyone will have to
pay their share of the cost, including the tight-fisted, hesitant news
Ltd and Fairfax. As well as APN and Rural press in the regional markets.

So what happened in the six months to September? Of the weekday
papers, only The Age ( up 1.8% to 200,500), The Australian (up 2.3% to
133,000) and the Herald Sun rose(0.1% to 556,500 copies) did well in
the eastern states, while in Perth, the West Australian was up 2.2% to
205,804 copies.

The Adelaide Advertiser fell 0.7% to 200,025, as did the Courier Mail, down 0.6% to 215,321.

The Australian Financial Review
was down 0.9% to 85,511 (odd, despite the
booming stockmarket and super flows!), the Daily Tele was down to that
‘well-rounded’ 400,000 figure (a publisher’s stab, perhaps?) and the
Sydney Morning Herald was down 3.9% to 217,066.

Among the weekend editions only the Weekend Australian and the Herald
were up. All others were down. The Advertiser was off 0.8% to
274,835, the Saturday Age was off 2.6% to 300,000 (a nice rounding
there!), The Courier Mail lost 1.7% to 335,608, Sydney’s Daily Tele
fell 0.9% to 332,000 copies. The Herald Sun rose 0.2% to
518,000, the Sydney Morning Herald slumped 3.8% to 366,816, the weekend
AFR was off 1.9% to 84,342, The Weekend Australian was up 1.2% to
292,000 and the West Australian fell 0.9% to 377,857.

Sunday’s were a little better with the Sunday Age up 1.6% to 194,500, the Sunday Herald Sun in Melbourne rose 2.9% to 604,000, while the
Sunday Mail in Brisbane was up 1.3% to 621,567.

Adelaide’s Sunday Mail fell 0.9% to 333,151. The Sunday
again fell (where’s the Porsche, Jenni?) to 725,000, the
Sunday Times in Perth was up a tiny 0.3% to 353,000, but Fairfax’s Sun
continued its long slide, shedding another 3.1% of its sales to
an average of 516,557 copies.

So from this, Sydney was a much tougher market than Melbourne. News Ltd
papers on the whole, suss, rounded figures and all, did well and
Fairfax was the big loser because the losses in Sydney and in the AFR
outweighed the gains in Melbourne.

That will please the people at The Age to be clearing doing better than
the disliked people in Sydney. Fred Hilmer, Mark Scott and Michael
Gill, all overseeing Sydney, should be a little shame-faced at the poor
efforts of their charges.


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