« Boost Your Advertising Sales Now! | Home | Why Newsweek Magazine Failed »

Digital Readers: Second-Class Citizens?

Posted on Wednesday, June 09, 2010 at 2:34 PM

How will an audit treat your digital readers?

By Meredith L. Dias

The pre-release iPad buzz led the Audit Bureau of Circulations to change its definition of digital magazines. Now the rules are iPad-compatible, but do they solve the digital circulation conundrum in the long run?

Until recently, the ABC required a replica digital edition to be a mirror image of its print counterpart. The editorial content, advertising, and layout had to be identical. The March ABC ruling loosens these restrictions in order to accommodate new digital publishing trends, including iPad magazine apps. Now, the layout of a digital edition can differ from the print edition.

So what does this new ruling mean for magazine publishers? What can they do with their digital editions without compromising their circulation and rate base?

The New ABC Criteria

The ABC separates digital editions into two categories: replica and
non-replica. In both instances, the digital edition is defined as "a paid requested subscription/single copy or individually requested verified where access is restricted." A replica digital edition must "include the print edition's full editorial and advertising content and all editorial photography," while a non-replica digital edition must "maintain the same basic identity and contain content of the same editorial home as the print magazine."

In this regard, the non-replica digital edition may be attractive to particularly innovative publishers. It lends itself to creativity and experimentation within the medium. However, it is important to keep in mind that, according to the ABC, non-replica digital editions "shall not be totaled into rate base comparison data in ABC reports." Only replica digital editions factor into both the core magazine circulation and rate base figures. Non-replica data are reported separately.

Allowed Changes

What if an advertiser opts out of the digital version? What if a magazine gains additional advertisers in its digital edition? Can it still be considered a replica digital edition?

The ABC has taken into account several such contingencies. A replica edition may replace advertisements when print advertisers opt out of the digital edition, and even incorporate additional advertising into its pages. These elements will not compromise ABC compliance. Enrichment of content with links, audio, video, etc., is also permissible under the new ABC guidelines.

Potential Problems

But what if a magazine cannot obtain permission to reproduce a print edition photograph in the digital edition? According to the ABC in its "Qualifying Your Magazine's iPad Edition" article, "If a consumer magazine uses an editorial photo in the print edition but is not able to use that photo in the digital edition (due to copyright or other reasons), the magazine cannot qualify and report the digital circulation as replica."

Given the sometimes problematic nature of permissions in today's increasingly complex copyright climate, this kind of rigidity may hamper magazines who rely heavily upon freelance photographers in particular. While the word "replica" certainly indicates a mirror image, it seems punitive to disqualify magazines who, through no fault of their own, are unable to obtain digital permissions for a photograph -- particularly when substitutions are permitted for print ads in the event of an opt-out. Why the leniency in terms of advertising and not editorial graphics?


The new ruling, while a step in the right direction, keeps magazines tethered to their print editions. A publication can certainly experiment with its digital editions, but deviating too much from print means classification as a "non-replica" digital edition. This category represents a concession, rather than an incentive, to innovative publishers seeking to break new ground in their digital editions. Core circulation remains a print-oriented metric.

While print circulation figures seem to be tabulated under the assumption that every print subscriber will open the magazine, publishers of digital content must prove that digital readers have opened their digital copies (via download records for 'push' delivery or access records for 'pull' delivery, according to the ABC). In other words, the digital subscriber must cement his validity by "opening" the issue before being counted. These rules prevent fraudulent or inflated digital circulation claims by digital publishers, but also seem to hold the digital subscriber to a higher standard of engagement with the content than print subscribers.

Embracing Technology

Print is far from dead. In some segments, it is still king. However, does this mean that magazine publishers should be required to apply their print formula to digital editions? What works for one will not necessarily work for the other.

There is an abundance of available technology that might revolutionize digital editions, but it remains largely untapped. In order for magazines to evolve, the very concept of what a magazine is must change. We must adapt our print-oriented conceptualization of magazines and allow digital editions to become more than mere replicas, more than supplementary, second-class circulatory citizens.

The ABC allows publishers to use existing technology to an extent -- editors and designers can enhance the digital edition with multimedia bells and whistles. But they must do so with the print edition in mind, presenting "editorial and advertising content ... in a fashion that is similar and consistent with the print publication." In this regard, the digital content remains only an extension of print. The magazine is free to develop a non-replica edition but, as mentioned earlier, readership of that edition will not factor into rate base comparison data or core circulation.

The Future

Still, the ABC changes help to move the magazine industry forward. The amended definition of digital editions will help publishers to incorporate more digital readers into their rate base and core circulation. However, because the very concept of magazines remains rooted in the print model, it is still a challenge to deliver content across multiple platforms to diverse audiences. And when something as simple as a photo substitution can disqualify a digital edition as a replica, publishers must walk on creative eggshells when developing their replica digital editions.

Perhaps the concept of circulation itself needs to change. Circulation auditing still focuses on print circulation numbers, counting digital readers in core circulation only when the product they receive mimics print. Should the advertisers and watchdogs expand their concept of core circulation to include diverse editions under the same brand? This would allow digital editions to evolve independent of their print counterparts. It would allow them to embrace the multifaceted existence made possible by today's technology.

(To read more about this topic, see William Dunkerley's Q&A article about auditing digital circulation in his consultant blog.)

Meredith Dias is the research editor of STRAT and Editors Only.

Add your comment.

« Boost Your Advertising Sales Now! | Top | Why Newsweek Magazine Failed »