By Dan Kennedy
As I wrote last week, the matter of how the Alliance for Audited Media counts paid digital subscriptions is something that has confused me for a long time. In September 2021, I sent an email to Erin Boudreau, AAM’s senior marketing manager in which I asked her some of the questions that I asked here. She responded with links to two fact sheets (here and here), neither of which struck me as especially helpful.
Because of that, I wrote last week’s item without checking in with AAM again. I immediately heard from Boudreau, but still without the information I was looking for. Now, I have no reason to believe that Boudreau was being deliberately obtuse, and I’m also aware that AAM is at the mercy of the newspapers that pay them. AAM’s job is to be accurate and rigorous, but they’re dependent on the data that publishers provide.
In any case, I decided to try again with Boudreau, asking her a series of specific questions expanding on what I asked her a year and a half ago. I would describe her answers as helpful but still confusing. Probably the most significant piece of information she told me is that even though newspapers don’t charge subscribers separately for digital replica (the e-paper) and nonreplica (the website and apps), they report those numbers to AAM separately based on an internal count by the publishers. There is also some double-counting going on — a print subscriber who also accesses digital may be included as a digital subscriber as well.
I continue to believe that the two most important numbers for determining the health of a newspaper is, first, the number of paid digital-only subscribers and, second the number of paid print subscribers. AAM is very good at providing the second number; the first remains elusive. As you’ll see, I mainly used The Boston Globe for my examples but also cited the Burlington Free Press, Gannett’s Vermont-based daily. In any case, here is our full exchange. I’ve lightly edited my questions, but her answers are as they provided them to me.
Q: How is it possible for newspapers to report separate numbers to you for replica and nonreplica when they don’t sell digital subscriptons that way? This is a question I’ve asked you before. Let’s use The Boston Globe as an example. According to the most current report that the Globe filed with AAM, its nonreplica digital circulation is 254,877 and its replica circulation is 26,666. But the Globe (following the practice of most newspapers) doesn’t sell digital subscriptions that way. One price gets you the website, which includes an e-paper option as well as a separate e-paper app for mobile. I can understand why advertisers would like to know what the Globe’s replica circulation is, but how can the Globe determine that when it doesn’t offer readers a separate replica subscription?
A: Our rules are structured to count circulation if a publisher sells print and digital access or digital-only access.
For print + digital subscriptions:
- If the subscriber gets a print copy daily, the print copy counts as a paid circulation unit.
- If the subscriber also accesses digital, one digital copy could count as a paid circ unit as well.
- If they access a replica edition, they can claim a replica.
- If they access an app or website, they can claim a nonreplica.
- If they access multiple digital channels, the publisher can choose if they want to claim one replica or nonreplica edition.
For digital-only subscriptions:
- Qualification is based on payment, not access.
- Circulation can be counted either as digital replica or nonreplica.
- Only one digital unit can be claimed as paid per day during the subscription term, regardless of the number of times the consumer accessed the digital edition or across multiple digital platforms during the day.
Q: You’ve told me: “Digital reporting has largely been tied to the print subscription. On days when there is a print edition, the user must access the digital edition for it to count. If there is no print edition on a given day, the digital edition sold as part of the subscription offer qualifies as paid circulation.” But that is not the case with the Globe, which continues to offer seven-day print.
A: With seven-day print, the publisher can also count a replica or nonreplica edition for a print subscriber if that subscriber accessed one of those digital editions.
Q: What is included in the Globe’s nonreplica digital subscription circulation of 254,877 given that it’s higher than the Globe’s own number of 240,000 for digital-only subscribers? What is being included in the higher number that’s not included in the lower number?
A: While we can only speak to data included on AAM statements, a digital circulation total may also include print subscribers who have accessed a digital edition, not solely digital-only subscribers.
Q: A former high-ranking newspaper editor told me that a newspaper’s total digital circulation can be determined by adding together replica and nonreplica. Was he right about that?
A: Yes, if you are looking for total digital circulation.
Q: To go back to the Burlington Free Press for a moment, when you add together its replica and nonreplica numbers, the total still comes out to half or less of the total digital circulation that is included in Gannett’s internal report. Do you have any insight into why that would be?
A: The circulation data included in AAM statements comes from the publisher. We cannot speak to what’s included on non-AAM reports.
2 thoughts on “More fun with numbers: AAM explains how it counts digital subscribers. I’m still confused.”
I think part of the disparity is because you are trying to determine the financial health of the newspaper by counting subscribers who pay for print or digital. AAM is trying to determine who sees the ads in one platform or another. To them, it makes more sense to count a reader twice if a reader saw banner ads on the website, and print ads in the paper or the replica. AAM doesn’t particularly care how much the reader paid for those options.
Mark, yes, that’s right. But I don’t really see why advertisers would be happy with how hazy the numbers are, either.