Minding our ABC

“The Audit Bureau of Circulations (UK) or ABC was founded in 1931….. to provide an independent verification of circulation/data figures to facilitate the buying and selling of advertising space within UK national newspapers.” (Wikipedia).

The ABC expanded rapidly to add magazines to its audits and for 70+ years served the publishers and advertisers who supported it with a steady and generally reliable service. Since the emergence of the web and digital publishing it seems to have lost its focus and its confident direction.

One unavoidable difficulty. The ABC figures are most trusted and most reliable when it comes to print circulation: ie subscriptions and newsstand sales. But this is now where the industry faces a big problem. For newspapers and magazines print circulations are (mostly) steadily falling and seem destined to drift on down. So the ABC figures which appear every 6 months are an unwelcome douse of gloomy news every 6 months when they appear, as the Guardian publishes another note on the falling sales of magazines (4.4% fall over 6 months), and the Press Gazette summarises the equally gloomy newspaper figures.

So how can the ABC avoid becoming an unwelcome spectre, like Banquo’s ghost, at the ritual gnashing of teeth as print circulations fall? Will publishers continue to pay for a service which is reliably and honestly charting the decline from the glorious heights of the early 1990s? There are signs that some of the weaker publishers are pulling out and no longer paying their audit fees.

The obvious solution is that the Bureau now needs to audit the success that publishers are claiming with their digital ventures (and there are success stories). The ABC is making efforts to do this (and at Exact Editions we support their efforts) however there are at least two problems with such a strategy. First, publishers are experimenting in all kinds of different directions: with paywalls, with apps, with direct sale digital subscriptions, with pure web services, with sponsorship and advertorial etc… There is no simple metric to measure what publishers are trying, and to some extent succeeding in doing. And if there are clear metrics, they are owned and developed primarily by the digital juggernauts (Google, Yahoo, Facebook, Twitter etc). The ABC clearly cannot compete with the specialist services that are measuring the digital world at large. Flurry or App Annie do what they do much better than a publisher-specific bureau could manage.

But there is even so a role that ABC, or an organisation of that kind, could usefully serve. No one is effectively measuring paywalls, membership, subscriptions, pay per view, and digital purchases across the board. What needs to be measured here is revenue. Cash generated from the market. If the ABC were to decide that it could help publishers by auditing and measuring their success in raising revenue from content sold/licensed to individuals and institutions across the board, it would deliver an analytical and a statistical service that would be very useful to the industry as a whole. It would also be charting the evolution of a success story, not the spiralling decline of a paper-based medium.