As newspapers sink, publishers propose new measurement methods

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As paying newspaper readership dwindles-or, to be charitable, stagnates-publishers are trying to heave the emphasis elsewhere, to nascent metrics like total audience and reader engagement. But analysts and others are warning that the industry may actually face more pressing problems.

For one thing, Web companies like Yahoo and Google are aggressively pushing into local services that were once domains of regional and city papers.

"Clearly, the industry circ declines again drive home the need to monetize the online model," said JP Morgan's Frederick Searby and David Lewis in a research note last week.

The semiannual report from the Audit Bureau of Circulations showed again that paying readers will not prop up the business. It revealed a 2.6% top-line decline in paying weekday readers among 786 papers across the country, according to an analysis of the report by the Newspaper Association of America. The drop-off, from the six months ended Sept. 30 in 2004, represented a loss of nearly 1.2 million readers.

Dim lights

Bright spots were few and dim, like the weekday gains posted by The New York Times and USA Today, both under 1%. Among the 50 biggest papers, The Louisville-Courier Journal grew the most: 0.6% during the week. The San Francisco Chronicle was the biggest loser from the same group, with a 16.6% decline in paid average circulation from Monday through Saturday.

But declines dominated, reinforcing the message of Knight Ridder's three largest shareholders, which are publicly pressing its board to sell the company. Knight Ridder no longer breaks out revenue from the digital unit. But as a company, it collected $1.7 billion in ad revenue in the first three quarters of this year. Google reported ad revenue of $1.6 billion in just the third quarter. To fight back, the Newspaper Association of America is emphasizing total readership. Last month, the association unveiled the Newspaper Audience Database, a compilation of newspaper audiences, demographics and Web traffic for more than 100 newspapers.

"Net paid circulation is a measure and it has value and it certainly has a hundred zillion years of history behind it, but it doesn't portray the true picture today," said John Kimball, senior VP-chief marketing officer at the NAA. "You have a story of a growing audience that's growing over a broader portfolio of products that come to the marketplace through that newspaper's brand," he said, citing newspaper Web sites, free commuter tabloids and ethnic publications.

But the industry still must detail that to the satisfaction of advertisers. In the meantime, Web sites from Craigslist to eBay keep vacuuming classified ads out of their pages.

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