The Bulk Dilemma

Newspaper circulation audit organization ABC is ‘investigating’ bulk circulation of paid newspapers in the UK. Not only because it is quite substantial for some titles (26% for The Independent, 48% for Evening Standard – see Peter Preston in The Guardian), but also because it is doubted whether these copies are actually distributed. Roy Greenslade recently asked in the Guardian why the results of the investigation are not yet published.

The ‘forensic review’ by ABC might reveal that many free copies are not really circulated – maybe only printed, or not picked up by airline travelers or hotel visitors. It also raises the question whether free dailies are really distributed, a issue also investigated by ABC.

Roy Greenslade suggested earlier that newspapers should abandon the system of Bulkistan altogether (although he seems to make an exception for the Evening Standard). An even better suggestion would be to rely much more on readership and get rid of the UK-obsession with circulation, leading to crazy give-away campaigns when the end of the month is approaching and to the blood-letting price war on single copy sales.

Greenslade thinks that publishers distribute papers for free “in the hope that they will turn a casual reader into a permanent one.” This is only part of the story – it’s distributing for marketing reasons. Much more common is to distribute for free in order to increase readership among some targeted groups (airline travelers).

The Financial Times is the best UK example, with only 63% of it’s UK and Ireland copies sold at full price – the majory of the FT ’sales’, however, are outside these markets, and it is unknown how much of these copies are really ’sold’ – frequent airline travelers and hotel visitors, however, must have a clue.

In international perspective, the NY Times owned International Herald Tribune, is the king of bulk. In October 2008, Frédérique Filloux already covered the ‘almost free’ IHT on his Monday Notes blog. He calculated that 56% of the IHT’s circulation is bulk/free. In France business paper Les Echoes gives away a third of its circulation.

In Germany Welt/Welt Kompakt distributes almost 40% (105,000 copies) of its circulation (270,000) as bulk sales (Bordexemplare &  Sonstige Verkauf). (IVW)

In the Netherlands two papers: NRC.next and Het Parool distribute 20% or more for free – these copies are mostly distributed for marketing reasons.

With examples like these, the distinction between free and paid papers is sometimes hard to make.

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