It's Time to (Finally) Get Solidly Behind Readership

By: Gary A. Meo If we have learned anything from the circulation issues of this past summer, it is that the marketing and advertising community has still not wholly embraced newspaper readership as a metric for evaluating the audience delivery of newspaper advertising.

In recent stories written about circulation, rarely was the term readership even mentioned, except when it was used incorrectly as a synonym for circulation. But it may be more important now than ever for the newspaper industry to get solidly behind readership.

Advertisers want to get their messages in front of people. Readership measures tell us about those people -- how many there are, where they shop, what they buy and what media they consume. When advertisers purchase television, radio and magazine advertising, they are buying the audiences delivered by those media.

There is an implicit double standard at work here: Advertisers have long accepted audience measurement as the standard for broadcast and magazines while newspapers continue to be evaluated on the number of units sold.

Declining circulation has been touted by newspaper detractors as a weakness of the medium, as evidence that eyeballs -- especially young eyeballs -- are fleeing to other media. This is true to a degree. With the exception of the Internet, most established media are experiencing audience erosion and have been for years. But the erosion of newspaper readership in the United States has been slow and steady, not catastrophic.

Scarborough Research has been measuring newspaper readership for 30 years. According to our estimates, the number of adult newspaper readers in the top 50 U.S. markets is virtually the same today as it was eight years ago -- over 78 million adults daily and about 91 million adults on Sunday.

Newspaper penetration has been declining because readership growth has not kept pace with population growth, yet newspapers still reach an impressive 53% of U.S. adults on an average weekday and 61% on an average Sunday. Over the course of a week (five weekdays plus a Sunday), newspapers reach eight out of 10 (77.8%) adults 18 and older in the top 50 markets. Newspapers have managed to retain large and loyal audiences despite the ups and downs of circulation.

Advertisers are also interested in the quality of the audiences they are reaching. Few media can rival newspapers for their reach of upscale adults. On any average weekday, newspapers reach 62% of U.S. adults who are college graduates, 56% of adults who are employed in professional or managerial occupations, and 64% of adults with annual household incomes of $100,000 or more. Audience quality measures like these are simply not available in circulation statistics.

Newspapers have invested heavily in the development and improvement of their web sites. In most markets, local newspaper web sites have sizeable audiences. There is no metric equivalent to circulation for web site audiences.

For newspapers to demonstrate the combined reach of their print and Internet products -- which has become increasingly important -- overall audience has to be the metric for apples-to-apples evaluation. For newspaper companies that have become multi-media companies, with print, broadcast, and Web properties, audience is the common metric across the different media offerings.

Programs such as the Audit Bureau of Circulations' Reader Profile and the Newspaper Association of America's Readership Initiative are two examples of how the newspaper industry is trying to emphasize readership in the media buying decision-making process. But clearly there is more work to do.

Writing about the circulation issues currently affecting papers in Chicago, Dallas, and New York, long-time newspaper-industry analyst Miles Groves observed: ?Distribution challenges aside, all markets involved have research programs in place where they get ongoing audience estimates. In no case has there been a corresponding reduction in readers reported. If readership is the true metric, then the harm is much different than professed.?

It is critical that the readership story, instead of just circulation, be shared with advertisers and agencies. The health, growth and long-term success of newspapers may depend on it.


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