Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Newspapers need objective reader research

This column originally was published in Editor & Publisher Magazine and is being reprinted with permission. To subscribe to the magazine so you can see the full array of industry coverage when it first appears in print, click here.

“I sell bellybuttons,” said Robert M. McCormick, one of the greatest newspaper ad salesmen who ever lived.

That's the best description you'll ever hear of the classic mass-media business model, which worked wondrously well from the time the Boston News-Letter debuted in 1704 until, say, five or ten years ago.

Unfortunately, many publishers today still invest too heavily in research aimed at persuading an increasingly skeptical world of the value of the bellybutton business and not enough in learning about the people who ought to be their readers.

The dearth of objective market research about newspaper readers not only could lead publishers into making wrong decisions about the future of their business but it also stands a good chance of undermining their credibility among advertisers. Here’s what I mean:

When the Audit Bureau of Circulations reported in April that daily newspaper circulation had tumbled some 8% from the prior year, the Newspaper Association of America promptly put out a press release saying Scarborough Research determined that “nearly 100 million” Americans, or 43% of the adult population, had read a print newspaper in the last seven days.

Good story, if true. But let’s get a second opinion.

When researchers at the Pew Center for People & the Press in 2008 asked Americans where they got their news, only 25% of the population said it was from print newspapers. This was down from the 34% who said they read print papers in 2006.

Do you suppose the number of newspaper readers jumped from 25% in 2008 to 43% in 2010? Me neither. How can the data be so divergent?

The explanation, as researchers at both Scarborough and Pew attest, is that you can get different answers by asking different questions.

In the interests of helping publishers claim as large a number of bellybuttons as possible, Scarborough uses a long-standing methodology called “aided recall” to count anyone who might have “read or looked at” a local newspaper in the last seven days. By contrast, Pew asks people, “Did you happen to read a newspaper yesterday?”

“You can make numbers go either way, based on the question you ask,” said Gary A. Meo, the senior vice president who runs the newspaper division at Scarborough. “If you ask an unaided question like Pew does, you will get lower readership numbers [for newspapers] than we do. If you ask people their source for news and rank the responses in order, newspapers are more than likely going to show up low. Most people don’t think of newspapers first. They think of TV and the Internet.”

At Pew, researcher Carroll Doherty said his measure of newspaper readership is based on a question that has been asked in polls for nearly 40 years. Back in 1965, 71% of respondents said they had read a paper on the prior day. In 2008, 25% of people said they read the print product and another 9% of respondents said they got the news from a newspaper website or through a combination of a print paper and a newspaper site.

“Our measure is probably a conservative estimate of newspaper reading,” said Doherty, conceding that other questions can suggest a higher newspaper readership. “The reason we stick with this question is that we have a long trend on it that makes it possible to track continuing changes in behavior.”

Now, I don’t object to newspapers using legitimate research techniques to put the best spin on the remaining audience they have. They need those readers and advertisers to help finance their transition to the digital realms that represent the future for their franchises.

But publishers also need an honest appraisal of where they stand in relation to competing sources of news, entertainment and advertising information. To that end, they need to conduct the kind of objective consumer research that informs the activities of every self-respecting purveyor of taco chips, aluminum foil or plug-in air fresheners.

With most newspaper executives distracted by slumping revenues, sagging profits and shrinking resources, they have not had the time, resources and emotional inclination to invest in taking a hard-eyed, hard-nosed and hard-headed look at their businesses.

But that’s exactly what they need to do in order to create honest appraisals of their Strengths Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. Equipped with a SWOT analysis, publishers can create SWAT teams to identify new audiences, launch new products and tap new revenue streams to replace their flagging core products.

If publishers conduct strictly self-serving research to support what increasingly appears to be an unsustainable business model, they can’t possibly make the right decisions. The only ones they fool will be themselves.

(c) 2010 Editor & Publisher Magazine


Blogger eclisham said...

As one foresighted newspaper editor put it, "Traditional readership research is only of limited use, because it doesn't tell you what to do next." Newspapers have for too long focused on the customers they already have, rather than identifying unmet needs among potential customers. That's an entirely different kind of research, and the industry hasn't figured out yet how to do that well.

Other consumer-products companies, however, have this kind of ethnographic research down to a fine science, and they use the findings (as opposed to "trusting their gut") to drive all new product development. The newspaper industry could learn a lot from them.

6:52 AM  
Blogger Mike Donatello said...

Publishers "need to conduct the kind of objective consumer research that informs the activities of every self-respecting purveyor of taco chips, aluminum foil or plug-in air fresheners."

Amen, Mr. Mutter!

1:47 PM  
Blogger Bill Tanner said...

When all newspapers had to do was to take orders, doing serious consumer research was an expense with little return. Of course, the game has changed. Consumers and customers are the bosses. Not delivering what the boss wants has always been a sure way to get fired. Net: Today, quality customer and consumer research has one of the highest ROIs of any function, if it is acted upon.

4:35 PM  
Blogger Steve Ross said...

Editor & Publisher needs to follow its own advice. I've been a subscriber for well over 20 years. I deliberately did not renew my subscription as the ownership changed. It would have renewed in January. I got an extra issue and only one renewal letter.

Where's the standard 4-letter cycle for re-upping long-term subscribers? And why not an email notification?

5:33 PM  
Blogger Bruce Wood said...

You can even get different answers asking the same questions by asking them at different times and/or days of the week. It's not just asking the same question over a period of years that gives you a reliable answer.

For example, if you ask the question, "Did you read a newspaper yesterday?" you'll get vastly different answers when you ask the question on a Monday verses a Tuesday.

Also, you exclude most weekly newspapers' audience when you ask the "yesterday" question.

How about asking, "Did you watch a 7 p.m. TV newscast yesterday?" instead of where do you get most of your news? When you don't define the type of "news" you're asking about, it is left up to the interpretation of the respondent.

You have world, national, state, local and entertainment "news". With all other things being equal, the surveyor would receive completely different answers by adding the type of news in his/her question.

But, I'm sure you're correct when you say the industry needs more readership research. It just has to be done carefully.

6:45 PM  
Blogger Mike Donatello said...


The "yesterday" form is the industry standard for measuring readership of dailies because it's asked and averaged over five days of the week, thus yielding the "average issue" audience figure. Readership of weekly publications is assessed using a question format that is pegged to the difference in pub cycles, specifically for the reason you mention. If someone's measuring a weekly with a "yesterday" question, and nothing else, they're doing it wrong.

8:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bruce Wood gets it. Scarborough tends to survey folks in the markets served by the top dailies. I'm not sure who Pew interviews. But Bruce is right ... if you contact someone served by America's 8,000 weeklies, most of which publish on Wednesday or Thursday, asking Saturday-Wednesday if they read a paper yesterday ... well, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to guess the answer, and then make the wrong analysis. The National Newspaper Association asks what they read and what media they rely on most for local news and advertising. Fairly honest questions.

10:45 PM  
Blogger John Goslino said...

Agree with many of the comments, including with respect to use of qualitative methods to understand what needs and interests people have, especially non-readers and infrequent readers. A late colleague of mine Dr. Dennis List created a very handy usable resource to assist media organisations undertake (and use) effective audience research, for those interested visit the link below:


11:55 PM  
Blogger Mike Phillips said...

I once asked a doctor who was giving me a physical if I needed a stress test. "You go to the gym and work out every day, don't you?" he asked. "Yes." "So you take a stress test every day."

A newspaper's daily (or weekly) stress test is putting a product out in the community and trying to sell it. That's the true readership baseline a newspaper must confront: It's simple and, for a couple of decades now, clearly disturbing.

The sophisticated audience research that's needed -- and I've been involved in a lot of it -- explores the whys and the possibilities.

I helped one company spend lots of money on such research and then flew many thousands of miles with our marketing director to train a wide swath of employees on the results. I'll hold those efforts up to any in the business.

And what happened? Nothing. "The way we've always done things" is a powerful force in human affairs. In a time of disruptive change, it's the enemy. And few cultures that I know about are as resistant to change as newspaper cultures.

That -- and not a lack of research -- is why newspapers are dying. And that's why I'm involved in a local new media start-up that will borrow bits and pieces from the old culture but will swallow none of it.

8:45 AM  
Blogger Gary Meo said...

While, Alan got some things wrong about Scarborough in his blog post, I think we can all agree that for the newspaper industry to compete for advertising dollars, it must have an established, independent and credible source of audience information. Scarborough is that objective, Media Rating Council (MRC) accredited source. We provide newspapers with the cross-media information they need to compete for advertising dollars, both locally and on Madison Avenue. When we talk about research to help newspapers with strategic planning, product development and audience development strategies, I think we can agree that newspapers have been less than enthusiastic about committing the necessary resources. Further, I completely agree that publishers need research to help them transform their businesses for the new media realities. But, obviously, I emphatically disagree with Alan’s assertions that objective audience research for newspapers doesn’t exist and that Scarborough’s methodology is designed to overstate newspaper reach. Especially when you consider the fact that Scarborough data is scientifically collected from more than 210,000 adults across the U.S., utilizing rigorous procedures that ensure accurate ratings across print, digital, and integrated newspaper audiences. As a newspaper guy who went to work for this research company 15 years ago, I can tell you that Scarborough is committed to data quality and is the “real deal” – whether the newspaper numbers are good, bad or ugly.

9:11 AM  
Blogger Ed Strapagiel said...

Yes, newspapers have to stop selling copies and start selling eyeballs, whether gained online, in paper, or by distribution. Readership is the ad selling basis in other places, such as Canada. But in recent years, many (most?) U.S. newspapers have striped out a whole generation of research and support staff. Don't hold your breath.

10:46 AM  
Blogger edward allen said...

I find these comments somewhat off-the-point. Newspapers use these surveys to get advertising, and the problem is the Internet has given advertisers much more accurate and precise data on who is reading their ads, how long they dwell on them, plus a demographic profile of the reader. Alan is quite right. Regardless of whether it's ABC or Scarborough, some better way of obtaining a picture of the readers if newspapers want to get ads.

7:27 AM  

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