Trust key as publishers negotiate advertiser, reader demands: ABC panel

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LAS VEGAS - The issues raised at the Audit Bureau of Circulations' 92nd annual conference definitely aren't going to stay in Vegas, venue of this show attracting the nation's leading print media circulators.

A host of issues worried the attendees: circulation metrics, audience trust, value of paid distribution versus free, more stringent advertiser demands, the digital threat or opportunity and the overall emphasis on accountability. At issue in this digital-dazzled world is print media's role with advertisers: deliverer of audience or enabler of transactions?

"Our job's to put eyes to the message and after that they've got to deliver," said Dennis Skulsky, president of CanWest MediaWorks Publications Inc.

It's a "very slippery slope" to sell ads based on how they make cash registers ring, Mr. Skulsky said.

The panel stressed credibility and reliability as key to running their editorial operations, even in the face of increased advertiser expectations and pressures. Integrity of the editorial process was a must, according to the panelists.

"We're not selling space per se, we're selling access to our audience," said Gary Pruitt, chairman and president/CEO of newspaper publisher The McClatchy Co.

Of course, newspapers and magazines haven't figured out the proper measurement of their audience's worth, so this does make negotiations difficult with advertisers, he said.

Society has changed and with it, reading habits. But that hasn't stopped newspapers from being held to a higher standard, the panelists agreed. Recent scandals relating to fake circulation numbers have taken their toll even while most publishers stand by their circulation reports.

So even with the shift to digital media and the growing popularity of blogs and search, print media continues to be held to a higher standard. That won't change because of the relationship between publication and reader.

But "we have to walk the talk," Mr. Skulsky told the audience.

There is little room for error. McClatchy's suit against a few small advertisers in Minneapolis led to a countersuit alleging cooked-up circulation numbers for its local papers. McClatchy was absolved of any wrong doing. But the whole effort cost between $1 million and $2 million to clear its name.

"The stakes were gigantic," Mr. Pruitt said.

Another issue that consumes the circulator's time is this debate between paid circulation versus unpaid. Some panelists spoke up for the practice of distributing magazine copies in public places like doctor's offices and salons, based on the targeted reach and the undivided reader attention there.

Circulation in magazines is like a big stew, said Michael Clinton, executive vice president, chief marketing officer and publishing director at Hearst Magazines, New York. There's price testing and sampling along with the guaranteed circulation in the list of ingredients.

Hearst, for instance, places Town&Country magazine copies in Four Seasons hotels. It is public placement, but one where the values between medium and distribution channel match with the audience's upscale profile.

Also, it doesn't matter if the reader paid more or less for the publication, he said, when asked about the value of a cover price.

"It's the reader experience with the product, not what they paid for the product," Mr. Clinton said.

Michelle Ebanks concurred. She is president of Time Inc.'s Essence Communications Inc. and runs Essence, the leading African American-targeted consumer magazine.

"Research shows that someone who spends $25 or $10 [on a magazine subscription] can still be engaged in our publication," Ms. Ebanks said. "So price is not a barometer of engagement."

Mr. Skulsky said he didn't think twice when an opportunity came up to place copies of his newspapers on Air Canada. The lure of the captive audience and the benefits of that time on the news and the ads within were too great.

That said, Mr. Clinton repeated an old lament: premiums aren't necessarily being paid on one piece of the circulation. In essence, advertisers aren't rewarding publishers for delivering additional value through different circulation. The rate base's stranglehold is still too strong.

Take delivery of bonus circulation above rate base, for example.

"When was the last time you were able to sell bonus above the rate base?" Mr. Clinton asked.

And here's the thing which most publishers don't publicize enough: current measurement techniques don't necessarily capture the correlation between readership online and in print. Magazines, as Mr. Pruitt pointed out, have three times the readership per copy.

"The overall readership is growing when you look at the unduplicated reach of the online and print media," he said.

He called for closer collaboration between the Newspapers Association of America and ABC, which is one of the two leading media auditors with BPA Worldwide. Sharing of circulation best practices was a way out.

"The problem with the newspaper industry is that too many of us have done these stupid, third-party tricks," Mr. Pruitt said, referring to practices to fatten circulation figures.

It boils down to trust, as panelist after panelist asserted.

Even though there are no checks and balances with blogs, they are still successful and read by readers, Mr. Skulsky said.

Ms. Ebanks, who brought husband Gordon to the show, was on the same page as her fellow panelist.

"I trust my husband," Ms. Ebanks said to illustrate the point. "I'm not going to let him come to Vegas by himself."

To which Jay Smith, president of Cox Newspapers Inc. and panel moderator, asked, "Time out. Is Michelle's husband in the audience?"

He wasn't.

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