Katherine Levy: Combining digital and print figures isn't as easy as ABC
A view from Katherine Levy

Katherine Levy: Combining digital and print figures isn't as easy as ABC

Where there is tension between magazine owners and media agencies, there is also hope.

The crux of the latest spat appears simple: now that there is discernible consumer uptake of magazines being read on tablets, publishers want to have their digital editions added up with their print editions to give a total headline circulation figure for agencies to trade off.

As you can imagine, those publishers that have invested a lot in that area and are reaping rewards, such as Conde Nast, are especially keen to push this through. Seems reasonable, doesn't it? Yet a plethora of issues arise from this discussion, and they are being voiced loudly by the heads of press at media agencies.

The main concern that media agencies have is that while publishers and the Professional Publishers Association are pushing for a headline figure, what they are proposing is that they combine monthly digital figures with six-monthly print figures to arrive at a grand total six-monthly overview. Agencies say this doesn't work for them; for it to be an accurate, "total headline figure", the Audit Bureau of Circulations would need to publish monthly print figures at the same time as well - something the ABC seems reluctant to do because it would be more expensive (or so the rumour goes).

This issue is not new. Media agencies have been pressing for magazine data to be published every month for years now and the ABC has so far refused to budge. The ABC does publish issue-by-issue data, but it does so a few weeks after the six-monthly report is released, so the figures could be up to eight months old. Press directors say the wait they have to tolerate for magazine audits undermines credibility of that data as it is so outdated by the time agencies get it. In a real-time world, they argue, this is ridiculous.

Whacking together digital and print figures raises other issues when it comes to giving a clear picture to advertisers. Duplication is a concern, considering some publishers offer a certain period of free digital issues as part of a print subscription. In addition, the IPA is understood to have informed the PPA that, whatever happens, agencies want the split between interactive and static digital replicas to be made clear. This is important because nascent research shows that interactive tablet advertising could be more engaging, and therefore more valuable, than print advertising.

But now that publishers are pressing to have their digital figures included in the headline figure, it gives agencies more bargaining power to demand the regular monthly audits they have so longed for.

And, if both magazine owners and agencies want the same thing in essence, then the ABC might have no option but to comply.