UK national newspapers will be able to choose to keep their monthly ABC figures private in a watershed move that marks the end of decades of circulation wars.
News UK said its flagship titles, The Sun and The Times, will no longer disclose their figures – a defining moment for Rupert Murdoch’s newspaper group, which was fiercely competitive in the heyday of print.
Other national newspaper groups, with the exception of Telegraph Media Group, which quit ABC earlier this year, are expected to continue to keep their circulation figures public under the ABC's new rules.
When titles opt to go private within ABC, media agencies will still be able to see the circulation numbers if they sign a non-disclosure agreement.
It will mean advertisers and agencies can still use the audited figures – for example, for News UK – for trading purposes.
David Dinsmore, News UK’s chief operating officer, said the group made the decision because "News UK is a multiplatform business with brands that reach more people than ever before via mobile, web, apps, video, radio stations and podcasts, alongside print" and it wants to focus on its total audience.
"While print remains a vitally important method of distributing our editorial to readers and meeting our advertisers’ needs, it is logical that the way we measure our audiences reflects the way the world works today," he said.
"A renewed focus on total audience across our many distribution platforms enables the news sector, media agencies and advertising partners to understand the true value of our news brands and the power of advertising within a trusted context as they continue to see significant audience growth."
As well as remaining a member of ABC, News UK is also a member of PAMCo, which launched in 2018 and publishes de-duplicated audience numbers across all platforms.
Many publishers have argued that ABC figures tell a "narrative of decline" as the focus has tended to be on declining print circulation, even though online audiences have been rising.
The trade bodies for agencies and advertisers – the IPA and ISBA – have supported the changes, which also mean ABC will stop publishing a monthly national newspaper report that compares the circulations of all the titles on a like-for-like basis.
Each publisher that discloses numbers publicly will still have an individual "certificate" on the ABC website, showing a title's monthly data.
However, some agency sources expressed doubts about the move to allow some of the numbers to be kept private and said they had been presented with a "fait accompli".
ABC is known as a joint industry currency – a trusted, industry-wide measurement and trading "gold standard" – and it admitted that giving publishers an option to go public or private with their numbers was not ideal.
Derek Morris, chairman of ABC, said: "Keeping a JIC joined up sometimes requires compromise. However, all agree that the higher principle of independently audited figures to an agreed standard is critical and must be maintained. I believe ABC have protected this principle and found an agreed middle path."
Simon Redlich, chief executive of ABC, added the body had needed to respond to concerns of publishers and the public/private option was an effort to "address those anxieties while still maintaining provision of the data for the people who are buying the advertising space".
The coronavirus pandemic has hit print circulation and advertising sales, and ABC has split the figures for the first three weeks and the final period of March to reflect the impact of lockdown.
However, the debate about continuing to publish circulation figures predates the pandemic, when the owner of the Daily Telegraph pulled out at the start of 2020, saying the numbers did not "accurately reflect the success" of its digital subscription strategy.
One industry source at a rival group said Telegraph Media Group’s ad sales had not appeared to suffer since then.
Belinda Beeftink, research director of the IPA, said: "Our members spend millions on news brand print advertising each year and it’s important their buying decisions are underpinned by industry standard data.
"The new reporting changes facilitated by ABC will allay publisher concerns and simultaneously ensure the continued provision of objective, independent data. Only through this kind of measurement can agencies and their clients feel certain they’re getting what they pay for."
Phil Smith, director-general of ISBA, said: "We fully support the changes announced by ABC today. These reporting updates will reduce the tendency for circulation to be seen as the only measure of news brands’ health in our multiplatform age, whilst ensuring that the comparability and trustworthiness of ABC data remains available to buyers."
Media agencies have doubts
Some senior agency figures expressed concern.
Emma Dibben, head of print and partner engagement at Wavemaker, said: "It’s frustrating that this is happening particularly as our news brand partners have been really open about circulation data during lockdown.
"Going private will not stop the discourse of decline in the trade press and private reporting just adds complexity, which is counterproductive for the industry.
"Publishers should be focusing as a collaborative force on agreeing what the long-term future is for measurement."
Steve Goodman, a co-founder of The Press Business, a specialist press buying agency, also expressed some disappointment: "This is all a compromise and, in my view, the release of the figures should be mandatory, with the focus being on an approach to highlight the total combined digital and print number, rather than on a way to suppress what we all know is exceptional data [during the coronavirus crisis]."
Goodman added: "The ABC has worked hard to develop an optional methodology by which newspapers can allow agencies to have access to data required for trading, while also preventing the bad news stories that inevitably may have appeared following the public release of their circulation data.
"What this does highlight is the shortcomings of the data, as the footprint of many of the news brands has actually increased when visits to those brands’ digital properties is included. But, to date, there has been no agreement on what that brand number might include, nor agreement on a uniform approach, or even a common technical ability for the measurement of those numbers.
"The result is a focus on just the printed copies, which is not a fair reflection of how consumers are engaging with the brands."
Goodman added that The Press Business has signed up to the terms of ABC’s non-disclosure agreement.
Not focusing on print in isolation
Tracy De Groose, executive chair of Newsworks and former UK and Ireland chief executive of Dentsu Aegis Network, one of the big four media buying groups, said: "Over the last decade, news brands and journalists have innovated and transformed the way in which they reach and engage with readers. We need to ensure the way the industry is measured reflects the reality of our modern multiplatform news industry.
"With 20 million online daily readers across national news brands, it is essential that we continue to invest behind total audience numbers to bring the industry in line with the rest of the advertising marketplace.
"This announcement from ABC gives the industry the access to circulation data it continues to need, while ensuring the focus isn’t on that in isolation. The focus has been concentrated on this single narrative for too long and now we have the opportunity to ensure a more holistic view."
Redlich pointed out that ABC has "always done our best to adapt" and has been evolving how it compiles data – for example, including free copies of the Evening Standard that have been delivered to homes during the coronavirus pandemic.
Keeping publishers inside ABC, even if their numbers are not released publicly, is still a positive, he insisted, "rather than lots of people going off and doing their own thing, where there's no comparability and people aren't reporting to an agreed structure".
Redlich does "not expect a wholesale move to private" by publishers.