Ranking of newspapers' market penetration indicates the market matters as well as the content

After our post last week on a new metric measuring the combined print-digital reach of newspapers in their home market, several readers suggested that a ranking by percentage of adults in the market reading some version of the news report would be equally or more interesting than raw totals.

Scarborough Research has provided that data, and it does indeed show a very different group of leaders. In fact, the Washington Post is the only paper among the top 20 on both lists.

Over the course of a year, Scarborough surveys the 77 largest Designated Market Areas (DMAs). Scarborough defines total integrated audience in this measure as including any adult who has read the print edition, visited the newspaper's website or both in the course of a week.

Below is the 2010 ranking of top papers by percentage (click for larger image). Leading the list, at 72 percent penetration of adults in its DMA, is Gannett's Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, the chain's flagship before the launch of USA Today in 1982. Others in the top five are Gannett's Green Bay cluster, the New Orleans Times-Picayune, the Syracuse Post-Standard and the Buffalo News.

The differences between this list and the earlier one measuring total numbers of in-market adult readers are noteworthy in several respects.

First, many of the top papers were also leaders in measures of print reach alone in the 1990s and early 2000s -- Rochester, Milwaukee, Richmond, Washington and Buffalo.

That suggests that adding digital readership does not radically reshuffle which papers reach the highest percentage of potential readers in their home markets.

Also, while these papers undoubtedly do something right in publishing compelling content and marketing subscriptions, the structure of the markets themselves has a good deal to do with which papers excel by this measure.

Newspapers in the nation's largest metro markets -- New York, Los Angeles and Chicago -- dominated the earlier list of total reach in raw numbers. However, papers in these markets, among a handful of metros with competing dailies, have never posted especially high penetration of their hugely populous and sprawling home areas.

Papers ranked highest on this percentage-penetration list typically have fairly compact metro areas and a relative absence of competing suburban dailies. Older, slow-growing cities with a high percentage of long-time residents have fared best in this kind of ranking.

However the list does include a few fast-growing metros -- Las Vegas; Austin, Texas; and Washington, D.C.

The percentage reach and total reach lists do have one thing in common: Both show more of the papers losing than gaining ground between 2009 and 2010. Rochester's percentage coverage fell from 77 to 72 percent, for example.

That is counterpoint to a standard line from individual papers and the Newspaper Association of America that total audience, when digital is included, is growing or stable -- not declining, as paid circulation numbers alone would suggest.

The way Scarborough does these surveys could be contributing to that result. Unlike paid circulation, measured at all papers for a given six-month period, the Scarborough surveys are conducted on a rotating basis through the year.

So the 2010 or 2009 results measure the most recent survey of a given market and could be nearly a year old at publication. These two years cover the heart of the severe recession and some particularly steep circulation declines, which have now started to stabilize.

As noted in the previous post, the initial measure of combined reach was developed for the State of the News Media 2011 report, issued in mid-March, to supplement a traditional ranking of newspapers by paid circulation.

We hope to revisit both measures in another year, and they should be an indicator of whether newspaper organizations can resume building audiences, especially with the growing number of prospects for reading their news reports on smart phones and tablet devices.


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