Newspaper reader numbers spin out of control

The bottom line of the 2001 Newspaper Audience Databank survey is that readership continues to decline in the only category that matters - the daily 'read yesterday' results. And no amount of spin can cover the fact up, says Hugh Dow, one of Canada's top media placement executives.
That's not to say Canada's dailies aren't trying.

The bottom line of the 2001 Newspaper Audience Databank survey is that readership continues to decline in the only category that matters – the daily ‘read yesterday’ results. And no amount of spin can cover the fact up, says Hugh Dow, one of Canada’s top media placement executives.

That’s not to say Canada’s dailies aren’t trying.

Both national papers found positive results in this year’s survey by highlighting the fact that their numbers were up in total weekly reading. The Globe and Mail, for example, ran a story lauding its results under the headline ‘Readership Success for the Globe.’ The story spelled out how the paper has 2.5 million readers a week. ‘Cumulative weekly readership has risen sharply over the year, up 15% across Canada,’ the story said.

Meanwhile over at the National Post, a story highlighted the fact that over two million people read the paper each week, again basing its analysis on weekly cumulative figures.

Such analysis is clearly meant to send a message to advertisers that their money is being well spent.

But Dow, president of M2 Universal in Toronto, sees a real problem with that. That’s because the concept of weekly reach (or cumulative) results are, for all intents and purposes, meaningless since dailies are supposed to be read every day, not once a week.

‘Initially, I was amused by the spin that was being put on the numbers, then eventually because there was so much of it, I became quite angry,’ says Dow. ‘There is obviously a concerted attempt to cover up some of the less palatable results. The decision to move to the completely unknown media term in newspapers of ‘weekly reach’ just baffled me as I think it did most people.

‘In fact the read yesterday numbers which have historically been the criterion we’ve used to evaluate newspaper readership were ignored in many of the articles. Clearly most of the papers have suffered in terms of the read yesterday numbers to varying degrees.’

So did the message have the desired impact on ad placement decision-makers?

‘The bottom line is that we’d look at it ourselves and do the analysis ourselves,’ says Gary Chin, VP director of planning at Toronto-based Carat Canada.

In terms of comparative rankings of the two national papers, The Globe with 944,800 readers is up 13% on the Post, which has 835,000 readers in 32 markets across the country. But both newspapers slipped in daily readership, The Globe is down 16% or 180,000 readers while the Post dropped 14% or 132,000 readers.

Despite this, Steve Rosenblum, account director, research at Harrison, Young, Pesonen & Newell in Toronto, says the newspaper industry remains the leading medium in terms of ability to reach Canadians day to day. ‘Its fundamental strength is still present, which is the ability to reach large numbers of Canadians daily.’

Other media specialists are not so optimistic. In a document analyzing the 2001 NADbank results titled ‘Little Good News for Newspapers,’ The Media Company managing partner Doug Checkeris points out that daily readership numbers have been declining consistently for 10 years. ‘Only 56% of adults (18 plus) claim to have read a newspaper yesterday,’ he writes, which is down from 59% in 2000. ‘Among the emerging 18-to-24 demographic this number is even lower at 50%.’

Not even the prospect of a war following terrorist attacks in the U.S. can significantly affect total, long-term readership. ‘These things go through this high-intensity news period when everything is new’ and circulation increases, says Rob Young, SVP planning and research at HYPN. ‘Then when it’s no longer new, those circulation numbers settle…. For the purposes of trying to finalize a contract for next year, you’d use those (2001 NADbank) numbers.’

In Toronto – the proverbial trenches of the newspaper wars where four dailies and, until recently, three commuter papers have been duking it out – the numbers tell a similar story for the traditional dailies.

The 2001 survey marked the first time numbers were available on the commuters, FYI Toronto, Metro and Today. NADbank indicates that The Globe, Post, The Toronto Star and Toronto Sun together lost 377,500 readers while the commuters gained 459,600.

‘Not only did the subway dailies account for the loss of readership of the traditional dailies, but they actually added some of their own,’ says Rosenblum, pointing to a 3% increase in daily readership in Toronto over last year.

But already the landscape has shifted. Since the completion of the survey, Today and Metro, the two leading commuter pubs, have merged. This is a concern, says Dow, because media buyers are about to begin negotiations for 2002 and NADbank results help determine the values of long-term contracts.

‘It’s a concern in view of the fact that the numbers don’t reflect the situation as of today,’ he says. ‘You certainly can’t use them as gospel…basically we’ve got to wait a full year before we really get the situation.’

As a result, M2 Universal is considering initiating a proprietary study with its sister agencies in the Interpublic group as it did last year to get a better picture, Dow says.

Mark Sherman, of Media Experts Toronto and Montreal, takes that skepticism one step further. He has little time for the NADbank readership numbers at the best of times, he says, because the numbers are not a true reflection of the state of the newspaper industry.

What is important is the relative positioning of the papers, he says. Increases and declines can easily be an anomaly in the sampling.

‘Overall the role of NADbank in the advertising media decision-making process is overrated and not as primary as in the case of [studies covering] broadcast television and radio,’ Sherman says.