Puffed-up Numbers Don?t Fool Anyone

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By: Alan D. Mutter

“I sell bellybuttons,” said Robert M. McCormick, one of the greatest ad salesmen who ever lived. That’s the best description you’ll ever hear of the classic newspaper mass-media business model, which worked wonderfully from the time the Boston News-Letter debuted in 1704 until, say, five or 10 years ago.


Unfortunately, many publishers today still invest too heavily in research aimed at persuading an increasingly skeptical world of the value of aggregating anonymous bellybuttons — and not enough in learning about the individuals who ought to be their readers. The dearth of comprehensive consumer research not only could lead publishers into making wrong decisions about the future of their franchises, but also stands a good chance of undermining their credibility among advertisers.


Here’s an example of why asking the right question matters so much: When the Audit Bureau of Circulations reported in April that daily newspaper circulation had tumbled some 8% from the prior year, the Newspaper Association of America promptly put out a press release saying Scarborough Research determined that nearly 100 million Americans, or 43% of the adult population, had read a print newspaper in the last seven days. The NAA also said 168 million souls, or 74% of the population, had consumed news through a combination of print or online media produced by newspapers.


Good story, if true. But let’s get a second opinion.


When researchers at the Pew Center for People & the Press in 2008 asked Americans where they got their news, only 25% of the population said it was from print newspapers and 39% said they got their news from the print product, a newspaper Website or both. This was down sharply from 2006, when 34% said they read print papers and 43% used a combination of print and online.


How can the data purporting to measure the same phenomenon be so divergent? The explanation, as researchers at both Scarborough and Pew attest, is that you can get different answers by asking different questions. 


In the interests of helping publishers claim as large a number of bellybuttons as possible, Scarborough uses a long-standing methodology called “aided recall” to count anyone who might have “read or looked at” a local newspaper in the last seven days. By contrast, Pew asks people, “Did you happen to read a newspaper yesterday?”


“You can make numbers go either way, based on the question you ask,” said Gary A. Meo, the senior vice president who runs the newspaper division at Scarborough. “If you ask an unaided question like Pew does, you will get lower readership numbers [for newspapers] than we do. If you ask people their source for news and rank the responses in order, newspapers are more than likely going to show up low. Most people don’t think of newspapers first. They think of TV and the Internet.”


At Pew, researcher Carroll Doherty said his measure of newspaper readership is based on a question that has been asked in polls for nearly 40 years. Back in 1965, 71% of respondents said they had read a paper on the previous day. In 2008, as noted above, 25% of people said they read the print product and another 9% of respondents said they got the news from a newspaper Website or through a combination of a print paper and a newspaper site.


“Our measure is probably a conservative estimate of newspaper reading,” said Doherty, conceding that other questions can suggest higher newspaper readership. “The reason we stick with this question is that we have a long trend that makes it possible to track continuing changes in behavior.” 


Now, I don’t object to newspapers using legitimate research techniques to put the best spin on the remaining audience they have. They need those readers and advertisers to help finance their transition to the digital realms that, it is to be hoped, represent the future for their businesses. 


But publishers also need an honest appraisal of where they stand in relation to competing sources of news, entertainment and advertising information. To that end, they need to conduct the kind of objective consumer research that informs the activities of every self-respecting purveyor of taco chips or plug-in air fresheners.  


With most newspaper executives distracted by slumping revenues, sagging profits and shrinking resources, they have not had the time, resources and emotional inclination to invest in taking a hard-eyed, hard-nosed and hard-headed look at their businesses. But that’s exactly what they need to do in order to create honest appraisals of their Strengths Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. Equipped with a SWOT analysis, publishers can create SWAT teams to identify new audiences, launch new products and tap new revenue streams to replace their flagging core products. 


If publishers conduct strictly self-serving research to support what increasingly appears to be the unsustainable bellybutton-based business model, they can’t possibly make the right decisions. And the only ones they fool will be themselves. 


Alan D. Mutter is a newspaper editor-turned Silicon Valley CEO-turned newspaper consultant. He writes Reflections of a Newsosaur, a popular industry blog at www.newsosaur.blogspot.com. He can be reached at alan.mutter@broadbandxxi.com.


* Upon reading this column, Gary Meo, senior vice president of print & digital media at Scarborough Research, offered this rebuttal, which appears on the “Comments & Correspondence” page in E&P’s July issue:

While it falls short in accurately describing the services offered by my company, Scarborough Research, Alan Mutter’s piece “Puffed-Up Numbers Don’t Fool Anyone” (June 2010), highlights a topic we care about deeply: the need to look up from the daily grind and lay the groundwork for the future.
We agree that newspaper companies must invest in the kinds of strategic research that will help them transform their businesses. We disagree, however, with Mr. Mutter’s assertion that there is a lack of objective readership research. This is flat-out factually inaccurate.
Scarborough Research is the industry’s long-trusted partner in providing newspaper audience data that helps newspapers compete for advertising dollars, both locally and on Madison Avenue. Our Media Rating Council (MRC) accredited data is scientifically collected from more than 210,000 adults across the U.S., utilizing rigorous procedures that ensure accurate ratings across print, digital, and integrated newspaper audiences. Further, Scarborough data is utilized by a large and diverse client base that includes television and radio stations, cable networks, and out-of-home advertising companies, as well as advertisers and advertising agencies.
Scarborough’s methods have evolved over time with a continued focus on updating measurements to keep pace with the needs of the industries we serve. At the same time, we do so in a way to ensure quality at every step. Therefore, it is also factually inaccurate to state that our information is “self-serving,” or aimed at “getting the largest amount of bellybuttons” for publishers. We use tried-and-true scientific research techniques to collect the most accurate information, not the largest number.
As evidence to support his assertion that there is a “dearth of objective research about newspaper readers,” Mr. Mutter compares Scarborough information to a survey published by the Pew Center for People and the Press. The two surveys measure different things using different methodologies. To compare them is the classic comparison of apples and oranges.
Among other inaccuracies in Mr. Mutter’s piece, it is important to note that, according to Scarborough data, 43 percent of adults read a daily printed newspaper on an average weekday, not in the past week. Further, our service does not just focus on the largest markets in the country, but also covers medium-sized and smaller geographies. Our readership numbers nationally represent all adults.
The way consumers interact with media and news continues to evolve and the competition for advertising dollars is more intense than ever. Increased resources must be invested in the type of strategic research needed to inform planning, product development and audience development initiatives. This will help lay the groundwork so the newspaper brands of today will be the news providers of tomorrow.
At Scarborough Research, we remain a committed partner to the newspaper industry. Together, we will continue to tackle these pressing issues.
Gary Meo
Senior Vice President, Print and Digital Media
Scarborough Research



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