Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Is readership rising or falling?

Is readership rising or falling?
By Simon Owens

Amid the countless stories detailing the blows the newspaper industry has taken in both advertising and circulation, one positive theme has remained constant: More people are reading newspapers than ever. Or, more specifically, more people are visiting newspaper websites. The New York Times, for instance, has a weekday circulation of just over a million. Its website - depending on which metrics you use - has somewhere close to 18 million separate people that visit it each month.
But according to a new study (pdf) released by the Readership Institute, a division of the Media Management Center at Northwestern University, even this one glimmer of hope for the industry may be overblown.

To complete the study, the Readership Institute hired a polling firm to conduct over 3,000 phone interviews in 100 "impact" markets. The questions focused in on how much time and effort was spent reading a person's local daily paper, making sure to differentiate between the print and online edition.

Based on the answers, the study concluded that website "penetration" is relatively low, with only a fifth of the respondents saying they visited their local papers' websites within the past month. Approximately 62 percent of the respondents said they have never once accessed the newspaper's website.

Mary Nesbitt, managing director at the Readership Institute, told me in a phone interview today that the level of website penetration has remained relatively the same since 2003.

"The penetration within the average impact area is not as high as most would like it to be," Nesbitt said. "It has changed a little bit over the last few years, picking up a little bit. But there's still a big opportunity to grow and engage an online audience."

As for the print edition of the newspaper, its core readership is showing a slow, steady decline. The Readership Institute developed a "Reader Behavior Score" to not only measure how often a person reads his local newspaper, but how much time is spent with it and the extent to which he reads it. The RBS is based on a seven-point scale, and this year the average score was 3.38, a drop from 3.55 in 2006.

Respondents that were ages 18 to 24 showed the sharpest decrease in readership, with a score of 2.40 (compared to 2.84 in 2006). Older readerships either stayed the same or actually showed significant increases.

So what accounts for the disparities between the website statistics boasted by most newspapers and the results of this study? Nesbitt wouldn't speculate much on this, but it's possible that many of those new readers are flowing in from outside the local impact area, either through search engines or links from other websites. Also, the study relied on the respondents to make off-the-cuff estimations of the time they spent reading newspapers, a fact that likely resulted in people making generalizations for reading habits that are often very complicated and sporadic. Readership has always been an incredibly complicated thing to measure, and even with the sophisticated analytic tools we have today to measure website traffic, there are still unresolved arguments over how to accurately gauge a website's readership.

But Nesbitt said one thing is likely certain: since the Readership Institute began conducting these surveys in 2000, readership is bleeding at a much slower pace than advertising and circulation revenue.

"What it tells us - contrary to what we read and see and hear - is that newspapers are not going to hell in a handcart," she said. "At least in terms of their audiences . . . They are read and used by a huge number of people on a regular basis. Truth be told that number has been declining slowly and what has been driving that is that frequency of reading has decreased."

And when I asked her whether there's any optimism for the industry that can be found from these studies, Nesbett was quick with one positive piece of spin.

"Something that's interesting is that even though website readership is very low, to me that says opportunity," she replied. "And the other thing is how the trust and credibility of the newspaper seems to be having a beneficial brand effect on the website as well. That's very positive to me."

But whether this brand will remain intact remains to be seen. The Newspaper Association of America reported recently that online newspaper advertising jumped 19 percent in 2007.

The flip side to that? Overall, total advertising revenue has dropped 12 percent from last year. Only time will tell whether newspapers online counterparts will ever catch up, or if this decade truly signifies the beginning of the end of the industry as we know it.

Contact me at simon.bloggasm@gmail.com

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