Free paper industry stronger than ever

by Tim Bingaman
President & CEO Circulation Verification Council

When I was asked to give a “state of the industry” presentation to the IFPA conference, I was a little apprehensive how to address this topic coming off the announcement of nine million circulation just lost in California. As we have seen with the recent announcement of startups in the wake of the closure, the loss of circulation had far more to do with negative money manager influence than problems with the publications themselves. The fact is, the free community paper industry is stronger than ever. 

Earlier this year I attended a convention and heard Allen Kupertz from kpartners give a speech on technology. I immediately thought of the free paper industry when he presented this quote: “The Mayans lost to the Aztecs, the Romans lost to the Barbarians, and the French lost to the Vietnamese. In each case the losers had superior technology, but the victors had more troops.” In the case of the free paper industry, your “troops” are your readers or audience. In the last decade, we have all read the self-written obituaries highlighting circulation declines within certain segments of print. Unfortunately, many have taken that to mean that all of print is in decline when in reality, many segments of print, including the free paper industry, are reaching a larger audience than ever before. In addition to stable circulation and readership numbers, some of the free paper industry has expanded their audience with websites, digital editions, social media, mobile & text media, apps, e-newsletters, and video and podcast audiences.
During the same presentation by Allen Kupertz, another item that applied to the free paper industry was a Douglas Adams quote: “Everything that’s already in the world when you’re born is just normal. Anything that gets invented between then and before you turn 30 is incredibly exciting and creative and with any luck, you can make a career out of it. Anything that gets invented after you’re 30 is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilization as we know it until it’s been around for about 10 years, when it gradually turns out to be alright really.” You have all seen the challenge of new media in your markets. Websites, text & mobile, and social media have all been a part of our lives for over a decade now, yet your industry continues to thrive. Your “troops”, or your audience, must continue to expand in order to continue to be relevant in the years ahead. The message of today is embrace them all. Make sure you are reporting your website, digital edition, social media, mobile & text media, apps, e-newsletters, and video and podcast audiences to CVC to show media buyers your true reach within your communities. New CVC survey technology allows you to report unduplicated audience numbers that in most markets show remarkable increases. Plus one in audience, whether that individual comes in the form of a print reader or from new technology, needs to be tracked and reported to advertisers.
When Brian Gay from MFCP approached CVC in 1999 about performing the first comprehensive circulation audits for the free paper industry, we began tracking key data points that to this day show an industry with solid delivery systems, readership, and purchase influence. Receivership scoring is the measure of the publications’ delivery system. In 1999 the average receivership score was 97.1%. That score is virtually unchanged today, with the national average receivership score being 96.6%. As a free paper, one of the most important measurements is what percentage of the papers distributed are read. Readership scoring is another category that has had remarkable stability. In 1999 the average readership score was 77.1%. That score today is 76.9%. The third, and arguably most important, score is the purchase influence a publication has over an audience. Purchase scoring in 1999 was 74.4% and has increased to 76.9% today, showing that more of your readers are relying on local publications than ever before when making purchase decisions for their households.
As many of you know, phone studies were the staple of research in the past. That is changing and has created a new mix of multi-source studies that allow publishers to measure not only their print audience, but all of their reach across multimedia platforms. I encourage you to participate in these new survey methodologies. Online studies, coupled with traditional phone surveys, allow CVC to gather more information about your audience than ever before. Publishers can have up to two studies performed each year, and each publication can add two questions of their choice at no additional charge. You can view the online study template at