e-Circ Irks Print Buyers

Everyone knows that newspapers continue to show steep circulation declines. But one area of circulation that’s grown—electronic copies, which one would think spells good news for the beleaguered industry—is attracting some unwanted attention.

First, the positive news. In March, 415 newspapers delivered 2.6 million weekday copies electronically—up 78 percent versus a year ago, when 303 papers delivered 1.4 million digital copies, per the Audit Bureau of Circulations.

The rise in digital subs is in part coming from newspapers converting their school-paid Newspapers in Education programs to electronic form. Schools that once received bundles of newspapers for their classrooms now can access online replicas.

A Newspaper Association of America analysis showed that 28 percent of newspapers’ electronic circ was in the form of such programs (based on papers with 5 percent or more of their circ delivered electronically). Newspapers also are selling more electronic subs, sometimes in combination with print home delivery, to save on printing and distribution.

This sharp increase in e-circ is setting off alarms among some buyers, who question digital replicas’ value to their ad clients and say there’s too little data about their readers. The concerns have become a wedge in a broader conversation about accountability to advertisers at a time of fast-declining paid circ.

“Anything digital needs to have a separate negotiation as the value of those copies are different because the experience is not the same,” said Robin Steinberg, svp, director of print investment and activation, MediaVest. “In addition, these copies are more efficient to distribute versus the traditional hard copies. They should be less expensive to me because they’re cheaper to distribute.”

Digital copies now make up 6.8 percent of overall newspaper circ, which may not seem like that much. But the top 10 users of e-copies accounted for 38 percent of the total e-circ, per the ABC. The biggest user of e-copies, The Wall Street Journal, selling more than 414,000 e-editions, is seen as an exception because of the premium price of its e-editions.

The rise in e-copies coincided with an 8.7 percent drop in overall circ in the six months ended March 31. The biggest users of e-copies also include the biggest decliners in total circ.

Adding to the confusion over the value of e-editions is recent research that suggests e-copies may not be as popular with readers. A recent Rasmussen Reports survey showed 63 percent of adults would rather read a print edition of the newspaper instead of an e-version (that number is down 6 points from a year ago).

The Detroit News and Free Press a year ago replaced home delivery with e-copies four days of the week, and they now total some 30 percent of its circ. Rich Harshbarger, vp, consumer marketing for the papers’ publishing parent, Detroit Media Partnership, said that of the 126,692 e-editions it reports as paid circ, their consistent readership is less than 20 percent.
Readers average 16 minutes with the weekday e-edition, a few minutes less than the industry average, but advertisers pay the same rate for both, he added.

But Harshbarger also noted the Detroit papers are accountable to advertisers by providing click-through data from ads they run in the electronic edition if a link is included: “With a print edition, I can’t go to Macy’s and say, ‘I know X percent looked at your ad today.’”

As for the conversion of NIE copies to electronic delivery, Darynda Jenkins, svp, group media director, TM Advertising, said the practice trains future generations to read papers online, where most media content is free, undermining the idea of consumers paying for content. And when reading online, she said, “They’re not immersed in the content as you are with print.”

But newspapers, fighting declining revenue, say electronic delivery is a way to save money.
“Print costs are one of the most significant—after employee costs—a newspaper has,” said Sherry Tate, consumer sales and marketing director at The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, a Scripps paper that derives almost one-third of its 148,763 circ from electronic NIE copies.

Digital copies will gain transparency on Oct. 1, when a new ABC reporting format takes effect that will require papers to provide more information about them.