May 6, 2002
Vol. 14, No. 10


Its value elusive, readership gains
credibility as unit of measurement

The circulation director is summoned to the publisher's office. The publisher gestures to the latest circulation report.

"I don't like what the numbers are saying here," the publisher says.

The circulation director responds: "What do you want them to say?"

-- Old newspaper joke

Though circulation numbers aren't quite as elastic as the old joke would lead you to believe, the measurement of a newspaper's reach has always been something of a debatable topic.

The various auditing bodies help insure that publishers restrain their circulation directors from having the reports say more than they should, but let's be honest: The numbers are never 100 percent accurate.

The latest release from the Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC) of Schaumburg, Ill., shows circulation is – once again – down (see Pete Wetmore's preliminary analysis inside). How far down, of course, is open to argument.

There was a blissful time years ago when a newspaper had one, single circulation number: the average number of copies sold per day. Today, the auditing bodies (which are sponsored by publishers, advertisers and ad agencies) allow newspapers to slice-and-dice the numbers in exotic ways. Some papers measure specific days of the week or specific groups of days; others continue to measure only Monday-through-Saturday and Sunday.

With many metropolitan papers producing a lunch-hour edition to supplement their main morning effort, they report not only morning circulation, but all-day circulation as well.

At this juncture, we have achieved a situation where, basically, the numbers are meaningless.

To worsen matters, as we compete more directly with television and radio advertising, we have been providing numbers for physical copies while our broadcasting friends can only give survey data about statistically projected viewers and listeners.

And their numbers always look better than ours. Forcing broadcasters to adopt our audience-counting methods would require them to say, for example, "Ten thousand radios are sold a day."

To level the audience measurement playing field, newspaper publishers have been gradually adopting a new metric: readership. The aforementioned ABC has been auditing readership surveys for a couple of years now, and last year began including their results along with circulation numbers.

The Newspaper Association of America (NAA) of Vienna, Va., has been moving away from its traditional semi-annual analysis of ABC numbers and toward an analysis and release of numbers it creates itself, using data from Scarborough Research of New York City. The NAA's Competitive Media Index (CMI) does have the distinct problem that it's measuring not the previous six months, but data from six months before that. To be a little clearer: the ABC data are current to March 31, 2002, while CMI data are current to September 2001.

The ABC data are unappealing; the NAA CMI data look great (or at least a lot better). The NAA touts that 55.5 percent of adults in the top 50 U.S. markets read a newspaper each weekday, 63.9 percent of adults read a Sunday newspaper and 81.8 percent of adults read a newspaper over the course of week (defined here as five weekdays and a Sunday).

Further, the CMI says daily newspaper readership is up from 54.3 percent and Sunday readership is up from 63.7 percent.

The advertising industry has willingly put its faith into statistically valid survey research techniques for audience measurement for broadcasting for more than 60 years (Arthur Nielsen started his Nielsen Radio Index in 1942).

There is no reason that similar techniques should not be used for newspapers. Or as one wag put it, "Now we'll have made-up numbers to compete with their made-up numbers."

-- David M. Cole; e-mail:

Inside ...

From NEWSINC., May 6, 2002, Copyright © 2002, The Cole Group. All Rights Reserved.

Top | | Consulting | Cole Papers | NewsInc. | Cole's Store | Miscellanea | Search
Copyright © 1990-2016, The Cole Group. All Rights Reserved. Contact us.
Modified date: 05/ 6/1992, 4:17:28 PM.