Who's Reading the Paper?

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A full 85 percent of all Americans read a newspaper in a given week.

Publishers who attended the Newspaper Association of America's annual conference in Toronto this past April had little to cheer about. The dot-com-bred boom in advertising dollars had already dried up, leaving industry executives to face once again the realities of the unforgiving media business, where newspapers compete with magazines, television, radio, and the Internet for ever-limited ad dollars. And if the advertising drought wasn't enough, executives also had to face up to the longer-term problem: declining circulation.

Yet, amid the consternation and hand wringing, there was a bright moment at the conference, served up by John Lavine, a Northwestern University professor who runs the Readership Institute. The reason for the flash of bliss: Lavine found that a full 85 percent of all Americans read a newspaper in a given week.

This is big news about where people get their news. Forget for a moment that the newspaper industry paid Lavine to conduct the study, which included interviews with 37,000 people in 100 newspaper markets. Greater competition from rival advertising media, coupled with a steady drop in the percentage of Americans who subscribe to papers, has newspaper executives scrambling for ways to show that they still qualify as a viable advertising vehicle. Over the past decade, the industry has consolidated, modernized operations, and even adjusted editorial content in an effort to boost circulation for advertisers. Nonetheless, today it still finds itself struggling to attract readers. Total morning and evening newspaper circulation has hovered around 60 million since 1960, despite increases in the population and improvement in education levels. (See chart, right.)

In its latest attempt to demonstrate its own vitality, the industry has embarked on an effort to modernize the metrics that gauge newspaper performance. The idea: By understanding the demographics of readers — what they read and which coupons they clip — editors and publishers could serve them better by tailoring content and advertising. In fact, many believe that the readership movement is absolutely critical to the future success of the industry. “The more a newspaper knows about its readers, the better that paper will be able to showcase its advantages to potential advertisers,� says Dr. Randal Beam, an expert in readership who teaches journalism at Indiana University.

This realization, that readership could improve the bottom line even without a change in circulation, was what shifted the readership movement into full gear. The NAA has spent the past two years in hot pursuit of the readership goal. First it approached the Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC), which is the nonprofit body that since 1914 has certified circulation numbers on behalf of advertisers. “The newspapers came to us,� says Mark Wachowicz, senior vice president at the ABC. In response, he says, the ABC launched the Reader Profile Service, an audit that is tacked on to the regular circulation reports that publishers already routinely file. Around the same time, the newspaper publishing industry commissioned the study from Lavine at the Readership Institute.

Lavine's report of newspaper readership, called “The Impact Study,� isn't even fully complete, yet industry executives are already greeting it with big wet kisses. Tim McGuire, editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune and incoming president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, calls the study the most exciting research he's seen in his 30-year career.

Why is McGuire so animated? Among Lavine's preliminary findings from the 37,000 people he polled: Readers like the content and they like the advertising. Ads are not just visual distractions from efficient reading. Think of this as the Super Bowl advertising effect, when many people turn on the big game but ignore the football. The Impact Study has found that the Super Bowl effect occurs on a smaller scale at the breakfast table every morning. Publishers have known this — people looking for jobs, used cars, and apartments buy the Sunday paper for the classifieds. But the publishers have not actively harnessed this readership-courting strategy throughout the paper. “If you have categories of advertising that appeal to certain segments of readers, they not only cause those readers to read that advertising, but the overall newspaper,� says Lavine.

What's more, certain kinds of stories drive readership more than others. (See chart, below.) The class of news and information with the greatest potential to increase readership is local news and announcements, particularly of a people-oriented type. Next on the popularity list: lifestyle news, concerning health, home, food, fashion, and travel. Interestingly, sports came in at the bottom of the list — contradicting the old rule of thumb that beefed up sports coverage increases readership.

The Readership Institute will eventually provide demographic data in tandem with each recommendation it makes. Right now it has only categorized the audience based on reading habits. The 85 percent of those surveyed who read some paper every week include 75 percent who read the target local paper (the one in their sample) or another local paper, and an additional 10 percent who read a nonlocal paper. Of those who read the paper, 23 percent are heavy readers, 11 percent skim it, while only 3 percent read just the weekday papers. (See chart, page 34.)

While publishers have embraced the study, advertisers are reserving judgment for now. “It's a compelling study,� says Matthew Spahn, director of media planning and analysis for Sears Roebuck & Co. “But I'd like to verify the data.�

Spahn and his colleagues may be holding out for results from an impartial source: the ABC. Unfortunately, the organization doesn't have enough data yet to report any significant findings. Unlike the ABC's circulation reports, the readership audit is voluntary and few papers have bothered to fill it out. The adoption rate — only 125 newspapers out of 1,500 opted to complete the Reader Survey so far — has disappointed many on both sides of the advertising table, who sat patiently for two years, ready to pounce on the numbers with their data hounds and spreadsheet applications. Instead, they have a jumble of inconclusive data and no analysis or recommendations.

Granted, some newspapers have filed the readership audits. But advertisers seek a critical mass of data, so that they may compare and contrast papers in the same markets, and between markets. Adding to the problem of achieving national comparability, the ABC hasn't yet invested in the tools and products that it offers for its circulation audit — including CD-ROMs and online planning tools. It plans to do so once more papers file. The industry is dragging its collective feet — perhaps afraid of what it may find out about its readers. However, few doubt that when a sufficient number of papers finally do fill out the survey, there will be ample demographic information to build marketing plans around, including the sex, age, education, household income, marital status, and ethnic breakdown of each newspaper's readers.

Clearly, circulation numbers will never disappear. Big retailers will always need to schedule pre-prints. But additional information about readers will help advertisers drill down below the surface, as they currently do for television (Nielsens), magazines (MRI), radio (Arbitron), and the Internet (various competing audience measurement firms). One can think of readership as a clever crib from the Maple Leaf playbook. Advertisers in Canada have used reader demographics data from the National Audience Data Bank (NADBank) for almost 20 years. NADBank tracks retail shopping habits, product usage, leisure activities, and other media usage, according to its executive director, Anne Ruta. It then offers advertisers the opportunity to crunch through the data, using CD-ROMs and analysis software. Want to reach seniors in Saskatchewan? NADBank will show you the way. The result, at least anecdotally, has been positive. “Canadian newspapers have a greater share of all advertising revenues than American ones do,� says Len Kubas, a Toronto-based newspaper consultant.

Against the backdrop of worries that other mediums will outpace newspapers by knowing their consumers better, one truth remains that will guarantee the dailies' survival — regardless of whether the readership movement pans out. As consultant John Morton says: “Falling TV viewership plus the fragmentation of television and other media has left newspapers in the enviable position of being the last remaining mass medium. Each household might get 60 or 80 TV channels, a half-dozen magazines, and only one newspaper.�

Newspapers are not risking extinction — only modernization — by refusing to take the final steps toward gathering audience demographic information.


Circulation has not risen above 60 million in more than 40 years.

Source: Newspaper Association of America


Some beats drive readership more than others. Here is a listing of news subjects from most to least popular.

  1. Intensely local, people-focused news
  2. Lifestyle news
  3. How we are governed and global relations
  4. Natural disasters and accidents
  5. Movies, television, and weather
  6. Business, economics, and personal finance
  7. Science, technology, and environment
  8. Police, crime, and the judicial system
  9. Sports

Source: Readership Institute


Newspapers receive 22% of all ad spending, more than any other single advertising category. Their readers include a diverse group of consumers, but only 23% are considered heavy readers.

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