Study Aims To Resolve Sunday Mag Readership

By: Tony Case

(Mediaweek.com) For a quarter century, the readership of nationally circulated Sunday magazines like Parade, published by Advance Publications, and Gannett’s USA Weekend has been based on reader data for the local newspapers that carry the publications, rather than on the magazines themselves.

In recent years, Sunday-magazine readership has become an even bigger part of newspapers’ advertising equation — and has come under more scrutiny — as newspaper circulation continues to decline.

Media buyers have expressed concerns about the reliability of readership figures. Critics have complained that the methodology of Mediamark Research Inc. (which tracks magazine readership and helps publishers set advertising rates) exaggerates the readership of Sunday magazines, as the MRI data assumes that every person reading the Sunday newspaper is also reading the magazine. (Readership pertains to the number of people reading a given publication, as opposed to circulation, which is the number of copies sold.)

To resolve this longstanding problem, Parade, along with media consultancy McPheters & Co., this month will initiate a five-month field study to assess the current MRI methodology. “We want the advertising community to have the most confidence they can have,” said Jack Griffin, Parade president.

The Media Ratings Council — which audits and accredits MRI, and whose members include ad agencies and publishers such as Time Inc., Conde Nast, and Hearst Magazines — has given the Parade/McPheters study its blessing. George Ivie, MRC executive director, calls the study “a good first step.”

Julian Baim, chief research officer for MRI, admits there are nagging questions about his firm’s methods. “What proportion [of Sunday newspaper readers] read the supplement? Is it 100%? 50%? We don’t produce a number.” Baim said MRI is “actively involved” in clarifying its techniques, but he also suggested that the industry may never fully sort out the issue. “Some are concerned that in the long run, there are insurmountable obstacles to arriving at a consensus,” he said.

The debate centers on the very definition of Sunday magazines — whether Parade (circulation 36 million) and USA Weekend (24 million) are magazines that happen to be distributed in newspapers, or are sections of their carrier papers. Parade and USA Weekend maintain that readers see the publications as bona fide sections of the paper, noting that local editions of the magazines are “branded” with the names of their host papers (in The Washington Post, for example, the paper’s logo runs alongside the Parade flag). If readers largely share that view, it would help legitimize the current linkage of Sunday-magazine readership with readership of the Sunday papers as a whole, not of individual sections.

Magazines that aggressively sell their pages against the Sunday magazines, along with many media buyers, contend that formula gives Parade and USA Weekend an unfair advantage over other titles. “Parade and USA Weekend have a vested interest in making sure their numbers are as close to the carrier papers’ as possible,” said Susan Boller, associate director of audience analysis for Time Inc., publisher of mass-circ weeklies such as Time and People.

Gemstar’s TV Guide, which has been especially vocal about Sunday-mag readership data, “questions measurement principles [pertaining to] Sunday circulation when there’s no guarantee people will read” the magazine, said Lauren Snyder, a Gemstar representative. “We are in full agreement that the readership numbers of Sunday magazines are over-reported,” said Richard Fielding, media research director for Starcom. If there is any change in methodology, it likely will not take place for at least two or three years, according to those involved with the project.

Anne Billups, vice president of research and readership for the trade group Newspaper Association of America, believes there is an “almost 100%” chance MRI’s methods will see a makeover. “The publishers … realize it’s been a problem for a long time,” Billups said. “The challenge is how to undo a process that’s been in place for more than 20 years.”

For his part, USA Weekend Publisher Chuck Gabrielson says he’s eager for some consensus. “We don’t want to keep dealing with questions from the agencies and the holding back of [ad] schedules,” he said.

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