The Good Ship Readership

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By: Jay Schiller

For the past few years, the Audit Bureau of Circulations’ FAS-FAX reports have included a section devoted to readership, although only a relatively small number of readers utilize it at present. While section includes five different categories, let?s look at two of them: Average Issue Adult Readers and Readers Per Copy.

Some of the newspapers providing readership information break up the totals by RSPA 1 and RSPA 2. (“RSPA” stands for Readership Profile Area.) Like ABC reports that have defined geographic reporting zones, readership reports also have defined geographic zones as well. Some newspapers define one reporting zone while others will define two, the major difference being that RSPA 1 and RSPA 2 can overlap.

In the March 2005 FAS-FAX, I found newspapers varying in Readers Per Copy from as low as 1.8 to as high as 4.4 — at The New York Times — with the norm being around 2.5. Readership is broken out by Monday-Friday and Sunday.

While it should follow logically that readership changes year over year should mirror changes in paid circulation, that wasn?t always the case. In fact, there were instances where the opposite held true; readership sometimes increased while the newspapers sold fewer copies, or newspapers sold more copies but had fewer readers.

The New York Times, for example, reported basically flat total paid circulation for the March 2005 statement versus March 2004, but readership there was another story. In its RSPA 1, daily and Sunday readership dropped by 200,300, or 3.9%, and 67,000, 1.0%, respectively, while in its RSPA 2, the daily and Sunday declines were 216,000, 9.7%, and 237,300, or 7.1%. The bottom line is that while the publisher’s statement shows no material declines in paid circulation, the New York Times has apparently (to judge by these numbers) lost hundreds of thousands of readers.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, on the other hand, showed a material increase in Sunday readership (by 17,500) while Sunday paid circulation declined (by 19,006).

Another case: The Los Angeles Times’ daily (62,805) and Sunday (107,593) circulation declines were dwarfed by its readership plummeting by 359,300 daily and 352,500 on Sundays.

The New Haven Register, meanwhile, lost almost half a reader per copy, going from 2.5 to 2.1 daily and 2.8 to 2.3 Sunday. At the other end of the spectrum, The Philadelphia Daily News showed a mega-readership increase of 107,000, or 24.0%, despite dropping 11,308 copies, or 8.1%, in paid circ, as its readers per copy went from 3.2 to 4.2. I would be interested to learn what the Daily News did to realize an extra reader per copy.

Some newspapers that reported readership figures last year opted not to do so this year. Other newspapers reported readership figures for the first time.

Overall, it still stands to reason that readership changes should be proportional to variances in circulation totals. When newspapers have readership and paid circulation totals going in opposite directions, it raises questions about the auditing of both, and what changes produced the trend.

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