Media Forum: Is print living in the past?

Do print sales figures need to be more transparent, Alasdair Reid asks.

Back in June, when Douglas McArthur unveiled a report, many months in the making, on the adequacy (or otherwise) of the way the publishing industry reported circulation figures, some media buyers were tempted to predict it wouldn't make a blind bit of difference.

How terribly cynical, more cheerfully optimistic sources responded. And after all, the auguries seemed promising. Especially seeing as this was the same McArthur who, more than a decade ago, was commissioned by the radio industry to make it face up to one or two home truths. The same McArthur who did such a good job that he was asked to stay on and set up the structure that his findings inspired - the Radio Advertising Bureau.

Publishers are not stupid, and the issues they now face are at least as urgent as those faced by radio in the mid-90s. They can surely be relied upon to listen. Especially when the essence of McArthur's analysis was that print is stuck in the last century when it comes to the transparency and frequency of the circulation data that goes to its advertisers.

Last week, the publishing industry responded. A part of it, at least. Thanks to a joint initiative between the Periodical Publishers Association and the Audit Bureau of Circulations, monthly magazines can now (if they so choose) release monthly circulation data.

That's the good news. The slightly less good news is that the data will still only be released twice a year - with the conventional six-monthly report. And the even worse news is that newspaper publishers have decided, at this stage at least, to make no concessions whatsoever.

Could do better? Print is a sector struggling to demonstrate its worth in a broadband-obsessed media world. Michelle Sherlock, ISBA's media and advertising manager, says ISBA deserves a fair degree of credit for spurring the PPA to action - so she welcomes this development. She says: "We have used our permanent seat on the ABC Council to argue that six-monthly average figures are insufficient and lend credence to the notion that some publications' large issue-by-issue fluctuations are being suppressed."

But can't we expect more from the print medium? Mark Gallagher, an executive director at Manning Gottlieb OMD, concedes that the magazine initiative is a small step in the right direction. "With retrospective data, buyers can look back and confirm (monthly circulation) trends they already suspected were there," he says. "It will make a small difference to the way the medium is planned, but in trading terms, it won't make a huge difference."

He points out that planners already have a good idea of the issues of a monthly title that sell well and the periods of the year where the pickings are slimmer. However, the bottom line, he insists, is that advertisers as a whole will be disappointed if this proves to be print's only response to McArthur's report.

But Paul Thomas, the investment director of MindShare, is minded to be slightly more generous. He says: "I can understand why publishers are always reluctant to provide information. They argue that we rarely use all of it, and what we do use we use merely to attempt to push prices down. On the other hand, that has to be balanced against an understanding that greater transparency gives greater confidence, and that can attract advertisers - so it can be good for the print medium as a whole."

However, Nik Vyas, the group press director at ZenithOptimedia, argues that the magazine industry's willingness to listen now shows newspapers in a bad light. He says: "The release of monthly magazine circulation data is a step-change in attitude from publishers and a welcome move that will enhance our ability to plan campaigns as well as better measure their effectiveness.

"At a time when many newspapers are touting integrated hubs around their brands, it is untenable for them to provide patchy, general and unspecific data relating to their paper products on the one hand, while on the other being happy with accountability when it comes to digital."

NO - Michelle Sherlock, media and advertising manager, ISBA

"ISBA continues to strive for increasing transparency for its members in all media and is therefore pleased with this development. The move will give advertisers more confidence about allocating their adspend."

YES - Mark Gallagher, executive director, MG OMD

"Everyone compares what goes on in print with what happens in online. The fact that there appears to be no movement on getting daily figures for newspapers is, I have to say, a major disappointment."

NO - Paul Thomas, investment director, MindShare

"Where monthlies are concerned, we know there are often major fluctuations from issue to issue - so this is a big step forward. Anything that helps us do our job better has to be welcomed."

YES - Nik Vyas, group press director, ZenithOptimedia

"The magazine industry's willingness to respond to our concerns shines a spotlight on the intransigence of newspaper groups where transparency is concerned. Their argument (that they don't have the information easily to hand) is looking like a house of cards built on sand."

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