Can readership data save local papers?

As the general and hardware stores across rural Canada give way to Wal-Marts and Home Depots, community papers are finding themselves in crisis. From their very inception, such papers carried local ads aimed at a local readership, but the local retailers are disappearing, and the national chains that are replacing them aren't buying ads.

As the general and hardware stores across rural Canada give way to Wal-Marts and Home Depots, community papers are finding themselves in crisis. From their very inception, such papers carried local ads aimed at a local readership, but the local retailers are disappearing, and the national chains that are replacing them aren’t buying ads.

To help save the papers, the Canadian Community Newspapers Association (CCNA) has deemed that nationals might be lured to community papers if the papers organized on a national scale, and provided advertisers with centralized high-quality readership information on par with the data they’re used to getting from other media.

But it might not be so easy: The lack of readership data is just one of many reasons buyers and nationals aren’t placing ads in the local Times, Tribute or Leader. Buyers also say the CPMs aren’t competitive, the readers have lower incomes, and the piecemeal buys aren’t worth the headaches. The question is whether the arrival of quality data starting this fall via the CCNA’s ComBase project will be enough to tip the scales.

As it stands, community newspapers are the only mainstream medium without national, third-party research outlining audience demographics and media usage habits. Without this information, media buyers can’t do cost and effectiveness analyses against other options, or even justify recommendations for community newspaper usage to their clients.

Major advertisers and media buyers alike have had to rely on gut instinct and the rather self-serving material provided by individual papers to back up their decision to use community newspapers. Even at that, large supermarket, furniture, electronic, drug or department store chains use community newspapers primarily as a distribution vehicle for flyers. They rarely do the much more lucrative (from the paper’s point of view) run of press (ROP) advertising because of the lack of objective research.

David Stanger, managing partner at DSA Baron, which has offices in Calgary and Vancouver, conducted the research that led to the CCNA’s decision to go forward with the ComBase readership study. He is now chairman of the tripartite committee shepherding the project. The research is going to be handled by Toronto-based Thompson Lightstone and will go into the field for a five-market pilot this fall (for more detail on the ComBase project, see ‘No respect’ on page 35).

During his cross-country phone interviews with publishers, clients and media buyers, Stanger received a wide range of feedback – both pro and con. On the media planning and buying side, he says it all boiled down to community newspapers not being planned at all or not being planned well. In most cases, community newspapers were totally off the radar screen, with buyers considering the papers only if they had a retail client or a service account, such as a bank.

Among publishers, Stanger says, the concern was about whether the research would actually be able to change the perception of community newspapers or the behaviour of a 24-year-old media planner working in a downtown Toronto skyscraper who has no personal experience with community papers.

‘I can’t say this study is going to make them change the way they [young media buyers and planners] think about community newspapers. They don’t read magazines or dailies either, but they can still plan them based on the information in their computer. Your job should be to get it right regardless of your personal behaviour.’

Stanger adds, ‘If we [media planners and buyers] want to be able to look at our clients and say, as stewards of your money we’re making the best decision possible because we have a computer system that has all the information about who watches, listens and reads what or who drives by what sign – we have a responsibility to that advertiser to make sure we’ve got community newspaper information in our computer.’

Community newspaper use today is assessed on a market-by-market basis, and Stanger doesn’t expect that to change. Although there will eventually be a central CCNA database for buying community newspapers nationally, he says only an advertiser like the federal government would likely be looking to place a national community newspaper buy.

Most major advertisers, says Stanger, expect their agencies to plan market by market, and to buy the most effective medium for each, regardless of how long it takes and what the media mix is.

National electronics retailer Future Shop of Vancouver has established what it believes to be a winning media strategy – and it doesn’t include community papers. The CCNA research probably won’t change the advertiser’s plans either.

Lori De Cou, manager of corporate communications for Future Shop, says the company hasn’t used community newspapers extensively in the past, and it eliminated their use completely last year.

‘Our strategy with newspapers is that wherever possible, we circulate our [weekly] flyers through paid-subscription newspapers. That move has proven to be very successful. We just came off a record year in sales.’

De Cou says the CCNA research probably won’t change this strategy, but any material that brings clarity to the decision-making process is useful.

Joseph Wuest, advertising general manager for Edmonton-based furniture and appliance retailer The Brick, feels he needs to have the CCNA research before he can justify use of community newspapers.

Wuest is a member of the CCNA tripartite committee. He has previously worked for both daily and community newspapers, but right now he’s only using community papers in a limited way.

The Brick distributes about 50 flyers a year and does ROP advertising even more frequently. Wuest says the biggest problems he has with community papers are their uneven distribution in larger markets and their lack of readership measurement.

Dailies are much more competitive than they used to be, he says, and they now offer alternate flyer delivery systems previously only available from weeklies. Wuest says he relies on television spill into smaller, more isolated markets because it’s more cost effective, and because flyers might not reach them.

He adds that there are other drawbacks to community newspapers beyond their lack of readership numbers.

‘If I’m going to run an ad in a broadsheet daily newspaper, I really only have to design one ad. If I want to run in major market tabs, such as the Sun papers, it’s the same. Community newspapers, because they’re mainly independents or loose affiliations, can all have different rules. Suddenly it’s 10 different ads, not two.’

Wuest has even had a problem with community newspapers turning down advertising from The Brick. He says there have been incidents in B.C., Alberta and Manitoba where a paper, because it has a local advertiser in the same business, would not accept his advertising.

‘I can understand where they’re coming from but if you’re going to do that, don’t join an association, and don’t market yourself in the real world unless you’re going to take the advertising. It just blows me away.’

Still, there will be possibilities for national advertisers when community newspapers have more information available, says Wuest.

‘Does it make sense to spend more money and put a flyer in Flin Flon? I think it probably does. Why don’t we do it right now? Budget, of course, and justification. Before you spend money, you want to make sure you’re doing it right.’

For some advertisers, even major ones, being part of a community – almost one of the family – makes community newspapers a good choice, even without the hard numbers.

Rita Erikkson, director of advertising for the Shoppers Drug Mart chain, says while the company uses community papers mainly for flyer distribution, it also does some ROP in selected papers. She says much of the strategy behind Shoppers’ choice of papers is based on input from local pharmacist-owners who can recommend the best vehicles.

But media planners and buyers live and die by the numbers. Numbers help them decide on the most effective reach and frequency for advertising – and justify those decisions to their clients.

Kathy Shapka, VP, media director, at Palmer Jarvis DDB in Edmonton, says while it might not make the task of media buying easier, community newspaper readership research will provide the backup required for clients.

‘Depending on the message, [community newspapers] have the ability to target geographically but also psychographically. When people are reading community newspapers, they tend to spend a little more time with them than with daily newspapers. It’s a much more leisurely read in my opinion.’

Shapka has had a lot of exposure to community newspapers, particularly in efforts to reach rural Albertans.

‘When reaching the rural Albertan, the two options I have are television and community newspapers,’ she says. ‘When it comes to pure efficiency, based on cost per thousand, it is easier with TV. But then you have to look at the type of audience you’re getting, not just lowest CPM. It’s quality of buy versus quantity.’

Philip Chant, senior VP of media for Halifax-based Corporate Communications Limited (CCL group), uses community newspapers because of the high rural population in Atlantic Canada.

But if he prepares a plan with community newspapers in the mix, he says the client will inevitably ask who reads them.

‘That stops you cold because you have nothing. There’s no strong evidence other than a subjective feel in the marketplace that [community newspapers] are a viable medium being used by retailers. It does have readership somewhere but we don’t know who they are.’

Chant sees community papers primarily as retail vehicles. He believes that with all media, whether TV or community papers, advertising is most effective when the audience has an affinity for the medium and the content. He has a theory that readers would see national brand advertising in a community newspaper as being out of place.

‘It’s an ad they would expect to see in an urban daily. I’m not saying they’d be negative to it, but it may not get the same response as a Home Hardware ad for the local hardware store.’

But while Chant waits for CCNA data that could support or refute his theory, some media buying agencies are already there: they’ve conducted their own research and already built proprietary planning models that include community newspaper usage.

M2 Universal Media developed such a model back in 1997 (when it was called Initiative Media) for its client Royal Bank. It has since developed a similar model for General Motors of Canada.

The agency’s Geodemographic Media Planning Model is based on a Geographic Information System (GIS), which categorizes geographic areas according to purchasing habits and socio-demographic profiles of residents. This Compusearch PSYTE Market Segmentation System is combined with a media-scoring index developed by M2 Universal to recommend the best paper, whether community or daily, to reach the target demographic.

Hugh Dow, president of M2 Universal, says when using this system, community newspapers often emerge as the preferred medium.

‘The ability of the databank to really provide some precise targeting has been very important for our clients. One of its main functions is that rather than buying the full circulation of a community or daily newspaper, we can buy particular sections that really address the geographic targets we’re interested in.’

Dow stresses that to really make the CCNA readership research an important and usable tool for media planners and buyers, the study must address the overlap or duplication of readers between dailies and community newspapers market by market.

For their part, community newspaper publishers are by and large supportive of the CCNA initiative. They believe the research will help them finally get a foot in the door with major agencies and advertisers.

‘I think that community newspapers in Canada have better or equal readerships to the dailies,’ says William Dempsey, president and CEO of London, Ont.-based Bowes Publishers. ‘And I think they’re going to find out we have much better household penetration in the communities we serve.’

Dempsey is responsible for more than 100 community newspapers in English Canada, 56 owned by parent company Quebecor in Quebec, and a small group of weeklies in Florida.

He takes issue with comments that national readers are more highly educated and have higher incomes than community paper readers, and he’s betting the readership study will show that demographics of small town Canada can go head to head with the larger urban centres any time.

‘It’s going to be up to the community newspaper groups and independents to take the information the survey provides, knock on the doors of the decision makers and say, ‘Here’s the proof of what we’ve been telling you all along.’ We have great household penetration and great readership because we continue to do the one thing nobody else can do in this day of electronics – we’re still the only medium to provide local content and local news in small-town Canada, right in their backyards.’