New ranking combines print-digital reach of metro papers, reveals surprising winners

Which American newspaper reaches the most readers in its market if print and online audiences are combined?

That seems a fundamental question in an era of hybrid print/digital business models. But in preparing the annual State of the News Media report released last Monday, my colleagues at the Project for Excellence in Journalism and I could not find a ready answer.

At our request, Scarborough Research came up quickly with a Top 20 ranking, shown in the chart below.

There is one important qualifier. Scarborough's methodology measures local markets only. So The Wall Street Journal and USA Today are excluded entirely, and the extensive national audience for The New York Times' and Washington Post's websites does not figure in the calculation.

That said, the winner, somewhat to my surprise, is the New York Daily News at 4,562,458. That is just 70,000 more than the second-place Los Angeles Times and about 450,000 more than The New York Times in its own metro market.

Scarborough's measure combines people who say they have read the print paper at least once in the last week with those who say they have visited the website at least once in the last week. The total is adjusted to back out duplication.

Naturally this produces a much higher figure than the standard paid circulation totals, which measure the average number of papers or paid digital editions sold daily and Sunday.

The online portion of the total would yield lower numbers than the usual unique monthly visitors measure. Besides being weekly rather than monthly, it would exclude the large number of out-of-market, so-called "drive-by" visitors who land at a paper's site via search or a link.

Still, the ranking is not radically different from one using just paid circulation. The most recent of those was compiled by the Audit Bureau of Circulations for a six-month period ending September 30, 2010.

Several papers whose paid totals no longer put them in the Top 20 in paid circulation move onto this new list by virtue of their well-trafficked websites, notably the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (12th) and the Boston Globe (14th).

The list includes several groups of papers with common ownership and common market geography. Those are MediaNews's clusters in the San Francisco Bay and Los Angeles area and the Chicago Sun-Times group, including its suburban papers. Also, in these figures the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News are treated as two editions of the same newspaper for purposes of audience measurement.

The Newspaper Association of America has been releasing a list for several years of the top combined audience gainers by percentage year-to-year after each six-month ABC period.

That list is a mix of mid-sized and large papers. It clearly has an agenda of showing that newspaper audiences, when digital is factored in, are not necessarily sinking, as suggested by 15 consecutive reporting periods of paid circulation losses.

The Scarborough ranking tells a different story, though, with losers outnumbering gainers compared to 2009 totals.

If a common measure of total reach for national papers were available, The New York Times would almost certainly be the leader.

Its online media kit claims an unduplicated print/digital reach in the U.S. of 22.4 million. USA Today, also in an online media kit, claims a combined reach of 5.9 million. I could not find a total reach figure on The Wall Street Journal's site; it emphasizes paid circulation, in which the Journal is the industry leader, and the additional number of paid subscribers to its Europe and Asia editions.

As noted in a Biz Blog post earlier this month, online metrics are in some flux with both advertising and media trade groups launching a project to better define standards for totals that currently vary greatly by vendor.

However, the new Scarborough figures ought to provide a useful base to gauge what is happening to newspaper organizations' audiences as the print to digital transition proceeds in future years.

CORRECTION: The chart that originally appeared in this story did not include figures for all of the properties in the Chicago Sun-Times Group. The new figures place the Sun-Times Group sixth on the list, up from 13th.


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