November 8, 2007

Newspapers Try to Count Readers Differently

Net Combined Audience: Weekly Print and Online
Rochester Democrat and Chronicle 86.3
Roanoke Times 85.6
Green Bay Press-Gazette 83.6
New York Daily News 29.1
Philadelphia Daily News 24.1
El Nuevo Herald 17.6

The news wasn’t very good for the newspaper industry on Nov. 5 when the Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC) released its latest circulation figures. On average, paid weekday print circulation for the 500-plus dailies that reported figures was down another 2.6% for the six-month period ending in September 2007.

But what if newspaper analysts, and especially advertisers, focused on a different number rather than that sobering 2.6% drop? What if they found out that on average, 90 papers in the top markets in the nation were reaching 64% of the adults in their communities at least once a week?

After two decades of circulation declines, and with the growth of newspaper Web sites, the industry says that traditional print circulation numbers no longer tell a fair or accurate readership story. And so along with the Nov. 5 circulation tally, the ABC issued three new measurements of newspaper readership. The bottom line, according to the new metric: In print and online, newspapers are connecting, at least on a weekly basis, with almost two out of every three local citizens.

As part of an initiative with Scarborough Research and the Newspaper Association of America (NAA) called “Audience FAX,” the ABC issued measurements of a newspaper’s weekly print readership, online readership and the combined print and Web readership. That number — “net combined audience”— represents a looser definition of a newspaper reader by counting people who read either the print or online version as rarely as once a week. And the overwhelming majority of “net combined audience” still comes from the readership of the traditional print product.

The newspaper industry is hoping this new metric will help convince advertisers that their product is a good investment. Quoted in media reports on the new readership numbers, Stephen P. Hills, president and general manager of the Washington Post, said "Part of the reason it was created is we think we haven't done the job we should in marketing this industry."

This isn’t the first release of audience metrics that integrates online and print readership. Last fall, the NAA released the Newspaper Audience Database, which focused on online-only readership and the concept of “duplicated audience”—those who consume both the print and online versions. But the new Audience FAX signals a coordinated effort to arrive at a measurement of total newspaper readership.

A look at that readership does paint a rosier picture. Among many new measurements issued in the ABC/Scarborough/NAA report, the seven-day net combined audience showcases an impressive level of penetration. To arrive at the overall figure of 64%, PEJ took the average of the net audience reach for 90 papers in the top markets identified by Scarborough. In this report, Scarborough defined a market as a paper’s geographic area of paid circulation.

Newspapers shown to have the greatest penetration of weekly print/online readers in their respective newspaper markets are the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle (86.3%), the Roanoke Times (85.6%) and the Green Bay Press-Gazette (83.6%). Those with the lowest penetration in their markets are El Nuevo Herald in Miami (17.6%), the Philadelphia Daily News (24.1%) and the New York Daily News (29.1%).

Given that this is the first time the audience metric has been released, there is nothing to accurately compare it against. But one test will be to monitor this number in the future to see if by this yardstick, combined newspaper audiences are declining or growing. Another key test will be the response of advertisers.

Niki Woodard for PEJ