Thursday, October 31, 2013

USA Today will count Butterfly edition circulation; move comes as it once more claims No. 1 circ rank

With print circulation tumbling again, USA Today Publisher Larry Kramer confirmed in a memo today that the struggling paper plans to include in its future circulation reports the new daily section inserted in four community dailies in the Butterfly Project trial that began this month.

USAT's honor box
That would add 360,000 in print weekday circulation and 579,000 on Sundays, for the first time giving the 31-year-old paper weekend circulation data to pitch to advertisers.

Until today, the paper had not said publicly whether it would include the standalone news section published at those papers in Indianapolis; Fort Myers, Fla.; Appleton, Wisc., and Rochester, N.Y.

The decision means USAT could expand circulation even more if the Butterfly Project is extended to perhaps three dozen of the largest 81 community dailies. They have a combined print circulation of 2.3 million on weekdays and more than 3.5 million Sundays. Corporate hasn't said how long the Butterfly test will be run.

Kramer's memo came as the paper disclosed it is once more claiming the No. 1 spot in newspaper circulation by counting free tablet and mobile phone use data on top of print edition sales. In doing so, the paper would overtake the current leader, The Wall Street Journal, and the second-ranked New York Times.

Muddying circulation waters
But the move makes it even harder to do an apples-to-apples comparison among papers, because the tablet and mobile phone users aren't paying readers. The WSJ and NYT figures are for their more valuable paid print and digital circulation.

Overall, this means circulation data will become even less meaningful to advertisers. USAT has long been dogged by critics who questioned the integrity of the paper's print circulation data because so much of it was to business travelers who got free copies given to them by hotels, airlines and other institutional buyers who bought in bulk at a steep discount.

With its new formula, USAT now says it has 2.9 million in circulation vs. 1.7 million in its March 31 report to the Alliance for Audited Media. That compares with 2.3 million for the WSJ and 1.9 million for the NYT, according to a report today in Capital New York.

However, USAT's new count masks another stunning loss of print circulation for the six months ended Sept. 30. It plunged 19% from a year ago, according to a Poynter Institute report today.

USAT's decision to count tablet and mobile data will help soften the blow of steep circulation losses the paper has forecast as a result of doubling its single-copy price to $2 on Sept. 30.

Digital age challenges
Kramer's memo arrives as the AAM (formerly the Audit Bureau of Circulations) released its Sept. 30 report to members this morning. Effective today, the AAM is no longer making public its top-25 circulation reports, however.

The industry has been wrestling with how to count circulation in the digital age, where papers have gained millions of readers who access websites for free. Historically, the industry had always counted paid circulation as most valuable. The shifting accounting has been a particular challenge for USAT, which doesn't charge readers for digital access to its website and digital apps -- unlike the WSJ and NYT.

AAM Executive Vice President Neal Lulofs told Poynter that the group's traditional method of counting circulation is no longer a meaningful metric for advertisers in today’s "complex multichannel, print/digital, paid/free, branded edition, bundled/paywalled, you-name-it environment."

The Butterfly Project, which has been in the works for more than a year, was seen as another way for USAT to regain traction in circulation and advertising while also giving an editorial boost to Gannett's community dailies. The standalone USAT section provides another platform to sell national advertising and adds dozens of pages of additional foreign and national news to the smaller community papers every week. The section is produced by USAT at its main office in McLean, Va.

USAT first lost the No. 1 spot in the September 2009 when the WSJ started included paid digital subscribers. USAT then fell to No. 3 when the NYT launched its paywall and also counted digital subscribers.

Kramer's new tactic
Counting tablet and phone app usage is a new marketing strategy for the paper under Kramer, the paper's first publisher with a deep digital background. He founded the widely read financial news site MarketWatch before coming to USAT in May 2012. His mandate: to turn around the paper, which had been losing multimillion dollars in advertising amid steep circulation declines as the paper's bread-and-butter customers, business travelers and hotels, abandoned print newspapers.

Four years ago, USAT had downplayed its drop in the rankings by emphasizing that it remained the top selling print paper, partly as a result of its big single-copy sales.

"Single copy newsstand sales," the paper said in a press release, "reflect customers who actively seek out the newspaper each day and pay full newsstand price, which is widely considered the most valuable circulation by advertisers."


  1. USAT is fast and loose with circulation numbers? Say it isn't so!

  2. I guess Kramer didn't include website traffic because it's even more unreliable. Tablet and phone app downloads are more easily verified.

  3. Butterfly will only flutter to the Top 30 or so markets. It won't be in our Non-Top markets.

    1. Thank you; I've now fixed that in this post. The weekday and Sunday circulation I've used here is only for those three dozen or so community papers -- not all 81.

  4. Newpapers demise will continue with this ridiculous quest to be number one. Does anyone talk to customers anymore? They don't care about reach, they care about results. And results come from an engaged audience, not simply from a large group. Build compelling content and the auidence that advertisers want will follow. Keep regurgitating national news down to the local level and you're sure to lose your audience. Smoke and mirrors will not keep this company alive.

  5. Once the Butterfly numbers start accruing to USAT, will AAM set Indy's circulation at zero? Or is AAM going to permit the same copy of a newspaper to be counted twice?

    It also will be interesting to see how Gannett plays this with AP, whose membership rates are driven partly by circulation. Will Gannett try to convince AP that USAT's circulation remains unchanged (still the same number of copies of USAT being printed, after all) while it tries to convince USAT advertisers that its larger circulation numbers are real?

    This matters more to AP than it does Gannett, for whom the AP fees probably amount to the equivalent of a few dozen FTE, company-wide.

  6. Here's what Larry doesn't get. The WSJ and NYT could count those digital subscribers because they actually PAID for the product. How in hell can we count our digital subs as PAID when only a small % PAY FOR THEM.

  7. The WSJ and NYT have routinely "played" these digital numbers, with the Journal especially adept at using data subscribers as "customers."

    USA Today is simply playing the game as well now. It will be interesting to see how the other ":papers" respond. Good for USAT for fighting back.

    1. Are you saying that the WSJ and NYT are including unpaid digital users in their numbers, too? How do you know that's true?

  8. Congrats to the USAT team. Well done!

    1. Kramer's circle jerk! Congrats - all around!

  9. "Claims" is the right word for what they're doing. I pay to read the NYT and WSJ and won't read USAT content for free (and I'm frequently in hotels where it's available at no charge). The only way they could be No. 1 is by playing games. Are they seriously patting themselves on the back for this?

  10. So we're now going to position our new found circulation leadership off NON PAID tablet app downloads? Are you kidding? Advertisers will have a freakin' field day with this story. There's not a chance in hell they will buy this argument. Dream on Larry.

  11. We're No. 1!

    Sorry, but we are, fair and square and playing by the same rules everyone else does.

    Great boost for all involved.

    1. 1:52 is right.

      And here's exactly what has happened from the USA Today story this morning. Unassailable truth:

      The agency that tallies newspaper circulation figures used by advertisers has changed its methodology to account for the increasingly diverse array of digital distribution channels, making USA TODAY once again the national leader in total circulation.

    2. Whether advertisers buy that or any of the zillion other metrics newspapers use to seduce them is an open question. But being able to say "We are No. 1'' is a terrific opening line.

      Way to go, USA Today!

    3. Any media outlet can define readership in a way that let's them say they're No. 1. Advertisers are experts at B.S. claims; they invented that art, so No. 1 isn't necessarily meaningful.

  12. 1:55 - Are you serious? - I've been in circulation for 39 years, 22 with USAT. Do you think advertisers are as dumb as some BO voters? These guys & gals are holding the pocketbooks & are doing their research. Our circ execs had to do some tricks to get bulk hotel sales moved up on ABC's paid report. Folks buying ads are business travelers & saw how many unread copies were left at the rooms' door & hotel lobby/front desk. Today's ad buyers are digital savvy. And they know a heck of a lot about paywalls. So No. 1? To whom?


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