Weekend Warriors To Measure Readership

By: Lucia Moses

Amid growing concerns about how Sunday-supplement readership is measured, Parade is funding research that it hopes will lead to higher advertiser confidence in its data. But will the findings fuel calls for deeper measurement of U.S. newspapers themselves?

At issue is the soundness of Mediamark Research Inc.’s (MRI) longtime method of measuring supplements’ audiences using each carrier paper’s readership figure. Critics, among them ad agencies and consumer magazines, believe the MRI data – considered the gold standard for media research – overstate the supplements’ readership by assuming that all readers of a Sunday paper look at every major component of it.

“When we are doing comparisons of magazine readership, and we want to include Sunday supplements in that analysis, it’s really not an apples-to-apples comparison,” said Judy Vogel, director of communication insights for New York-based ad agency giant OMD.

The measurement question may not end with Sunday magazines, which also include those published by individual newspapers, such as The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. Ad buyers’ discussion of supplement readership has extended to the lack of measurement of specific sections in newspapers. How many people, for example, read The New York Times “Home” section?

“I think the issue’s out there, and, at some point, it’ll have to be addressed,” said George Ivie, CEO and executive director of the Media Ratings Council (MRC), a nonprofit trade group that has been pushing MRI to improve its methodology. “It’s definitely there in the background.”

While the Sunday-magazine measurement issue has been around for years, it gained interest last year. Adding to the momentum, observers said, were tight ad budgets, consumer magazines’ belief that Sunday magazines are overcounted, and a 2001 Multimedia Audience Research Systems study that, using different methodology from MRI, resulted in lower readership numbers for supplements.

Parade, no doubt eager to resolve uncertainties about its readership numbers, commissioned research by McPheters & Co. Inc. in New York, with support from MRC and other research organizations and backing from USA Weekend. “We wanted the media community to have the highest possible confidence in numbers that are reported,” said Jack Griffin, Parade president. By the fall, McPheters expects to complete the first phase, establishing ground rules it hopes will be adopted by media-research companies. Inconsistency in researchers’ nomenclature is one reason for the “widely divergent estimates of audience of these publications,” according to Rebecca McPheters, who is president of the media-consulting firm.

Sunday-supplement executives say that, readership data aside, the best evidence that they are well-read is repeat business from their direct-response advertisers. Said Sonia David, marketing director for USA Weekend, “If the ads didn’t work, they would not come back to us.”

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