ABC adapts to shrinking market, growing digital

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The Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC) board has made several resolutions that reflect current trends in the print marketplace — including expanding measurement of digital publications and creating newspaper and magazine task forces to deal with challenges ahead.

Playing into the market's growing interest in digital publishing — evidenced most recently by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer's move to an online-only platform — the ABC at its meeting last week broadened its definition of digital editions. Previously, only exact electronic replicas of the print edition could be counted as paid digital editions. Now, any content published digitally can qualify, as long as the basic identity and content are similar to the printed edition and access to the digital content is restricted to paying consumers. This new form of measurement will appear on June 2009 ABC statements.

In addition to the new guidelines for digital editions, the ABC is jumping into the digital game with the creation of a newspaper industry task force focused on exploring electronic and “nontraditional” editions. The board is working with the Newspaper Association of America to create the task force, which will be headed up by Jerry Hill, director of audience and new business development for the St. Petersburg Times. The St. Petersburg Times has an average weekday paid circulation of 268,935 — 2,297 of which are electronic editions.

ABC also is creating a new magazine task force to assess the group's reporting processes. The goal is to simplify auditing and add more data on audiences and multimedia to its reports.

In another move brought on by changes in the newspaper industry, the board rescinded its approval of an earlier motion that would have allowed newspapers with circulations between 50,000 and 75,000 to be audited only every other year. Annual audits of these papers have been reinstated to better serve advertisers.

“In today's economy, advertisers are under tremendous pressure to demonstrate the return on their marketing investments,” Chris Black, division VP of media at Sears Holdings Corp., explained in a statement. “Newspapers in this circulation range are highly valuable to us, and an annual ABC audit gives us the kind of detailed, independently verified data we need to fine-tune our media buys.” Black was elected to the ABC board last March.

Other major changes to reporting rules were ratified and are set to go into effect April 1: Under a new, flexible pricing model, newspapers will be considered “paid” regardless of the sale price. However, publishers will be required to report subscriptions sold above and below 25% of the basic subscription price if more than 5% of their subscriptions fall into the lower category.

In another sign of the times, the ABC has cancelled its 2009 annual conference, citing the weak advertising market and lower anticipated attendance. The conference was slated for November. ABC will still host its virtual training sessions online this fall.

“We're disappointed to postpone this year's conference, but it's the right thing to do in the difficult economic environment all businesses are faced with,” Mike Lavery, president and managing director of ABC, said in a statement. “Many of our member organizations are under widespread travel and budget limitations, and are trimming discretionary expenses such as attending industry conferences.”

ABC used last week's meeting to add two new directors to its board: Ed Cicale, VP of media services at AutoNation Inc., and Evan Ray, SVP of finance and operations, US community publishing, Gannett Co. Inc. The group also created a new ABC Canada board at this meeting, by adding six members to its Canadian committee.

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