Is ‘Readership’ Ready for Prime Time?

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By: Jennifer Saba

Prudential equity research analyst Steven Barlow released his fourth comprehensive study on circulation in mid-September. The report mainly charted the progress in cutting other-paid circulation ? a category that has been under intense scrutiny thanks to a renewed focus on so-called “quality circ.” But Barlow and his team also weighed in on the subject of readership, a metric that has been gaining serious ground as paid circulation dwindles.

No doubt, over the past two years publishers have preached about readership stats being an effective way to truly measure newspapers against other media. Some have even suggested that readership should replace paid circulation, Prudential notes. While the research firm testifies that readership is a valuable metric, it’s not ready to step in for paid circulation. Furthermore, readership stats still need spit and polish, even if they’re to be used mainly as an adjunct.

Here’s why, Prudential argues: For all the noise made about readership, not enough newspapers are making an effort to measure it. Prudential bases its claim on the Audit Bureau of Circulations’ “Reader Profile” information that is provided in publishers’ statements (and as a separate report, the reader profile). For the 50 papers that Prudential uses in its study, only 39 subscribe to reader-profile information in their March 2006 pub statements, according to the report. Notable players that are absent: The Wall Street Journal, New York’s Daily News, and the New York Post. “Making newspaper-to-newspaper comparisons would be impossible without full participation, were readership the primary or sole metric,” analysts report.

By way of example, the Austin (Texas) American-Statesman was one of the first newspapers to sign on to ABC’s reader profile reports in the late 1990s. This year, the paper dropped them. “We had heard from the ad department that it wasn’t being requested very much,” says Harry Davis, vice president/circulation.

However, just because a paper doesn’t sign on to ABC readership metrics doesn’t mean it has scrapped the metric entirely. Davis is a huge champion of readership data, but he prefers to find it elsewhere. The Statesman is using Scarborough Research (owned by E&P’s parent, VNU Inc.), which releases data far more frequently.

Which brings up another bone of contention for Prudential: ABC reader profiles are not updated nearly enough ? every 18 months to two years. (ABC does not measure readership; it verifies the data from other sources.) “As we have seen double-digit declines at major newspapers, allowing two years to pass before re-measuring an audience seems inconsistent with the up-to-date data advertisers are demanding these days,” analysts wrote.

However, ABC Vice President of Corporate Communications Neal Lulofs tells E&P that since July, those newspapers participating in reader profiles that have new readership data every six months must submit that data to ABC for verification. He adds that increasing the reports’ frequency is something the ABC board “continues to look at,” as well as a more holistic approach to metrics.

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