October 23, 2002

By Rick Edmonds
Special to Poynter.org

What is the proper measure of a newspaper’s audience reach? The traditional answer is paid circulation — subscribers plus single-copy sales. But there is an alternative, a more “modern metric” its proponents would say, that has been picking up some steam of late: calculating the total readership of an average day’s edition.

“That’s the right measurement,” said Tribune’s publishing president, Jack Fuller, “assuming the main thing you want to know is how many people avail themselves of your journalism and see the ads.” Consider, too, that among competing media, television and radio measure only audience and audience demographics, while magazines typically measure both circulation and pass-along readership.

Less obviously, the advertising industry is a spirited cheerleader for readership numbers — and, particularly, accompanying survey information about the characteristics of those readers — the better to pitch targeted multi-media campaigns to clients.

No wonder then that the Newspaper Association of America (NAA) has been promoting the readership alternative and commissioned a multi-year, multi-million dollar study of readership issues. Also, the Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC) now offers a “reader profile” report as an optional supplement to its industry-standard six-month audits of circulation.

But three years into the ABC program, it has drawn only 212 participants with reports completed or in process. That is less than a quarter of ABC’s membership for the traditional circulation audit, though the pace has been picking up, and the coming attractions group includes large and prominent papers like the Washington Post. (By contrast, readership is already considered the more important measure in Canada).

“The industry is dragging its collective feet,” American Demographics magazine reported a year ago, and it’s not so clear why. The slow pace could be simple inertia, the expense and initial unfamiliarity of the format, or, perhaps papers are “afraid of what (they) may find out?”

One thing’s for sure. Not all papers are equal in how many extra readers per copy they attract. A sample of eight of the new ABC profiles (see list below) showed multiples of circulation ranging from 2.1 up to 2.6.


Newspaper Readership Circulation
Anchorage Daily News 149,300 66,443
Arizona Republic 886,200 397,869
The Fresno Bee 412,400 159,935
Wilmington News Journal 265,100 114,975
Palm Beach Post 448,200 165,500
(Minneapolis) Star Tribune 840,200 313,728
The Fort Worth Star-Telegram 522,400 209,827


Why are people passing the paper around briskly in Fresno but not so much in Louisville?

The science of tracing readers per copy is a little young for definitive answers. But it is most likely a combination of community demographics, the degree to which circulation totals are padded with deep discounts or introductory offers to marginally interested subscribers, plus, of course, reader appeal.

To the working editor or reporter seeking to attract readers with good journalism, this state of play carries an ambiguous message. Keep your eye on the ball — but which ball?

At an analysts’ meeting in June, Fuller recounted how the Los Angeles Times had trimmed circulation, (artificially pumped up during the Mark Willes years) but concurrently increased readership. How is that possible? In an interview, Fuller cited a half-dozen factors: a new marketing strategy, aggressive branding, changes in the editorial mix dropping weak community sections in favor of high-end metro reporting, reorganizing sections. Raising the paper’s price may also have added to a perception of value. And on a readership basis, the Times did much better with African-American and Hispanic audiences than paid circulation totals showed.

The approach is not particular to Los Angeles, Fuller said. The company’s flagship, the Chicago Tribune, has pursued a premium pricing and position policy against the Sun-Times in recent years. In south Broward County, Fla., he told the analysts, the Sun-Sentinel holds only a narrow circulation lead over the Miami Herald, but charges more and has 30 percent more daily readers.

At the same investors’ meeting, CEO Tony Ridder reiterated Knight-Ridder’s emphasis this year on rebuilding its newspapers’ circulation. The strategy includes tying a larger part of executive bonuses to circulation, selectively cutting subscription and single-copy prices and bulking up on news-you-can-use and suburban/community coverage the company believes readers want most.

By August, Merrill Lynch analyst Lauren Rich Fine noted in her most recent report on the company, circulation revenue was down 6 percent and daily circulation up 1.4 percent compared to a year ago. But the jury is still out, she added, on the degree to which advertisers will pay for that additional reach.

John Murray, who directs NAA’s readership offensive says the charge to the editorial side is “to produce a relevant, compelling newspaper,” one the occasional reader will reach for in the coffee shop, the doctor’s waiting room or while having his oil changed. John Lavine and colleagues at the Readership Institute at Northwestern University, who have carried out the industry-funded study, offers a far more detailed variation on that basic theme. Lavine proposes speeding past a raw readership total to what he calls a “Reader Behavior Score” that measures frequency of newspaper reading during the week, time spent with a given edition and how thoroughly the front-to-back contents are read.

The current phase of the Readership Institute study offers some highly prescriptive suggestions for increasing appeal to light readers — like a prominent front-page box summarizing both the background and the day’s developments in a set of running stories. Other tips: readers prefer narrative and other unconventional story formats to a steady diet of inverted pyramids; and obits or health and fitness stories are bigger draws to light readers than yet-more-voluminous sports coverage.

Some skeptics suspect the industry of shopping for a better story with the readership measure. Looked at over the decades, newspaper readership has fallen some, circulation is falling faster. Household penetration (since population continues to increase) is really plunging. Circulation gets at who is willing to pay, not just look, when convenient. And how reliable are the pass-along numbers?

Syndicates like Scarborough and Gallup have been measuring newspaper readership in large markets for years. The basic methodology is to call up a representative sample of people and ask, “Did you read a newspaper today?” And go on from there. ABC defines a detailed set of procedures for its “reader profile” but leaves the actual measuring to a list of 21 approved vendors.

NAA’s Murray argues that this is no more or less precise than a circulation audit. No one from ABC comes and counts all the papers on their way to the loading dock; rather, they visit to check records selectively, verifying a publishers’ report. ABC circulation audit rules change over time. Last year, the ABC board liberalized its treatment of bulk sales and other discounted circulation; in August, it agreed to allow papers to drop holidays and the Friday or Saturday before holidays from their averages, should they wish. Still, Fuller concedes, differences remain on the fine points of methodology in measuring readership and there is no “gold standard” yet comparable to the traditional circulation audit.

On balance, though, the readership proponents have history on their side. The good old days of 70 to 80 percent penetration, households with two parents and 2.2 kids, and a dad who came home from the factory at 4:30 to read the Evening Bulletin are long gone. Editors have been forced to take note of that growing share of audience that is on-the-fly and only sometimes attentive.

An even newer issue — and it is double-edged — is the rise of electronic versions of most newspapers. That may be a further drain on paid circulation and basic readership, but could also be viewed as a substantial extension of the audience of the printed edition (as the Wall Street Journal and other sites have demonstrated). ABC has new rules this fall allowing paid sales of an electronic replica of the whole newspaper — as offered by NewsStand or by some papers in their own PDF fie — to count as paid circulation. But look for the ramp up on this new option, as well, to take years as the great majority of papers still allow free access to their sites.

So, when it comes to counting its audience, as in other matters, the newspaper business currently has one foot firmly planted in the past and a toe in the water for a potentially different future.

Rick Edmonds is a researcher and writer working on a series of reports on business aspects of journalism for Poynter. He previously reported and edited for the Philadelphia Inquirer and the St. Petersburg Times.

Support high-integrity, independent journalism that serves democracy. Make a gift to Poynter today. The Poynter Institute is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, and your gift helps us make good journalism better.
Bill Mitchell is CEO and publisher of the National Catholic Reporter. He was editor of Poynter Online from 1999 to 2009. Before joining Poynter, he…
Bill Mitchell

More News

Back to News