Letters, June 22, 2009

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Are mag audiences really growing older?

RE: "Mag, Newspaper Readers Aging at Accelerated Rate: Digital Has Drawn Young Eyes Marketers Covet to Screen from Print" (AA, May 25). Nat Ives' piece argues that young eyes are migrating from the printed page to the screen. This recapitulates the oft-repeated claim that young people are abandoning the print media in favor of the internet -- a bit of journalistic conventional wisdom that tends to treat newspapers and magazines as interchangeable. From the research perspective, there are several problems with these claims.

Ives' analysis compares MRI's Spring 2009 report to its Spring 2004 report. It is very hazardous to proclaim a trend from only two data points, and it is impossible to substantiate an accelerating rate of change from only two observations. Ad Age is not a research journal, so some simplification is expected. But even if one uses the same 2004 to 2009 time horizon, Ives' claim seems overblown. According to MRI, the median age of the adult population increased 1.3 years during that time, while the median age for magazines increased 1.6 years. So this represents about four months' of "aging" over the five-year-period. Is that really a big enough change to justify the sweeping change that the article asserts? I think not.

In addition, Ives' analysis ignores new entrants into the marketplace, those titles that were measured by MRI in 2009 but not in 2004. There are 25 such magazines. Of the 25 new entrants, 18 are reported by MRI to skew toward younger readers, while only seven skew older. The key point here is that inclusion of the new titles that entered MRI measurement since 2004 would make it even more difficult to find an overall trend toward aging. You end up with a picture of demographic stability, not of a death spiral. Not much of a dramatic headline, but closer to the reality.

According to MRI, total unduplicated net magazine audiences have been rising over the past decade. Part of the reason for this is that, on average, people read slightly more magazines now than they did in the past. This can be illustrated using the same two data points presented in the article. For "Average Number of Magazines Read in Past Month," the 18-24 group read 11.9 in 2004 and 12.5 in 2009. The 45+ group read 10.1 in 2004 and 10.3 in 2009. Not only are all Americans reading more magazines each month on average, but the youngest population segments are consuming more magazines per month than their counterparts in the older population segments.

I delivered a paper at the Worldwide Readership Research Symposium in 2007 analyzing 25 years of MRI data. What it found was that there are enormous differences among magazine genres. Some genres really are suffering what appears to be demographic decline, or lower rates of readership among more recent generations. However, other genres are just the opposite, with each younger generation consuming magazines at significantly higher rates than were true at that age for earlier generations.

Ultimately, this points out the problem with trying to make sweeping generalizations about the aging of an entire medium, especially one as diverse as the magazine medium. Advertisers don't buy the whole medium anyway: They buy specific magazines. To tar the entire medium with the brush of demographic decline is indefensible, especially when it is based upon such slender and incomplete empirical evidence.

There are other problems as well. All print media are not the same. Consumers come to magazines and newspapers mostly for different reasons, and they derive different satisfactions from each medium. And from all that we can tell, there remains very little evidence of online substitution for those magazines that are not tied closely to the news cycle.

One final complaint: even if I find fault with the caliber of Ives' analysis of the MRI data with regard to age trends, at least this part of his article attempts to argue from evidence. However, he provides no evidence at all to support his assertion that the (supposed) aging of magazines is the result of a migration of "young eyes" to digital media. Had he looked into this, he might have noticed the recent report from Nielsen that showed that the fastest-aging sector of digital media is the social-media sector. That is too bad, because a bit of cross-media comparison would have put the rather glacial changes seen in five years of MRI data in a very different context. In his defense, Ives did take note that some TV shows are seeing their audiences age. But TV was not part of his master narrative about what is happening to print, while digital was very much a part of that narrative. To blithely assert, without any evidence at all, that digital is eating print's lunch is irresponsible. Hopefully, future coverage in Ad Age will be a bit more exacting. I think your readers are old enough to handle it.

Scott McDonald
Senior VP-market research
Condé Nast Publications
New York

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