Chris Sutcliffe: How do you measure a paper publisher's true digital value?
If you're looking for a phrase to describe the change in newspaper print circulations this year, it might well be 'the bigger they are, the harder they fall'. The latest figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC) demonstrate that only the Metro managed to increase its print circulation year-on-year, with every single other national title recording a fall.
The responsibility of accurately recording those print circulations falls to the ABC, who set the industry-standard measurements and effectively acts as a guarantor that the figures are true.
Its chief executive Simon Redlich explains: 'There's a great deal of trust associated with ABC, so a bit like a British Standard stamp on a plug, you accept that's a safe plug to use. You have that confidence that 'I can rely on those numbers because they're been independently verified'.'
Since the newspapers' ability to sell print advertising is inextricably linked to their capacity to reach huge audiences, those falls are enough to provoke existential dread at many titles. The figures suggest that print circulations aren't going to gradually tail off, allowing publishers time to find an exit strategy, but that they're falling off another cliff.
No wonder, then, that the publishers make such a big deal of digital audience growth. For the titles without paywalls, their financial results trumpet the number of average unique viewers their digital properties receive. That way, they have some positive growth figures with which to court advertisers.
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But measuring digital reach is significantly harder than print circulation. The sheer number of channels across which publishers have to distribute their content means that getting an accurate number of unique readers is often tricky.
Redlich explains that the ABC is working with publishers and platforms alike to ameliorate that problem: 'It's not something we can necessarily go into in a great deal of depth, just because of our ability to access the data behind the headline level. It tends to depend on the environment and whether they allow publishers to tag their content to get the information we need to verify things.
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'We're in regular discussions with the industry in the broadest sense, and some of these technology companies to work out the best way we can demonstrate the full repertoire of what publishers are doing.'
But while the ABC is working with all sides of the industry, a second issue is that the technology companies behind the platforms don't play nice with one another, competing to keep users within their own walled gardens. Worse still the platforms have traditionally resisted sharing their data with publishers. It adds up to an environment in which publishers have extremely concrete proof of their falling print presence and in-depth audience data for their own sites, but a hazy guess at best at their actual digital reach.
That's something Redlich believes is changing, as publishers, platforms and advertisers reappraise their relative values to one another: 'I think in some respects it's what the buying community wants as well, not just the publishers. Quite often, people are pragmatic in that you can't necessarily start with the perfect solution. You can steadily improve things and develop from there.'
As in so many other cases, then, it will require collaboration between publishers and platforms alike to accurately gauge their worth to advertisers.
Players from all over the digital publishing game are trying to figure out how you accurate value an individual piece of content. The Knight Prototype Fund at Stanford is developing a news quality scoring system, while some publishers are adopting time spent with content as a measure of the worth of an article beyond the simple view count.
Publishing platform Medium is taking a different tack: It is trialling a 'Clap' system, where subscribers effectively rate the quality of a piece by hitting the clap button as many times as they want. It's a more granular system than the binary 'like' or 'dislike', but there is scepticism about whether the system will act as a genuine measure of a story's quality.
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