The numbers are in

Community newspapers finally have the beginnings of their NADbank - and boy do they need it.
Until now they had nothing to compare to the data available for dailies, radio, magazines and TV. But the Canadian Community Newspapers Association's (CCNA) ComBase study aims to change that with a national database offering detailed readership information for almost 300 markets across Canada.
Following a test run covering five markets last fall, the first numbers are finally in. The big question now is whether those numbers will persuade national advertisers to put some of their million-dollar budgets into the communities.

The five markets surveyed in the pilot were:

Toronto (Ont.) – CMA plus 25 sub-markets

Final sample size: 2,779

Red Deer (Alta.) – CA, plus extended market area

Final sample size: 516

Killarney (Man.) – Town

Final sample size: 114

Campbellton (N.B.) – City

Final sample size: 116

Yorkton (Sask.) – CA

Final sample size: 229

Community newspapers finally have the beginnings of their NADbank – and boy do they need it.

Until now they had nothing to compare to the data available for dailies, radio, magazines and TV. But the Canadian Community Newspapers Association’s (CCNA) ComBase study aims to change that with a national database offering detailed readership information for almost 300 markets across Canada.

Following a test run covering five markets last fall, the first numbers are finally in. The big question now is whether those numbers will persuade national advertisers to put some of their million-dollar budgets into the communities.

So far there are no promises, but buyers seem to generally like what they see.

And there is definite agreement that what ComBase does do is level the playing field.

David Stanger, managing partner at media buying firm DSA Baron Communications of Vancouver and Calgary, says that even if the study doesn’t bring a lot of national budgets knocking, it should help increase regional business. He says a real growth area for agencies and media suppliers is a trend that’s seeing retailers and franchisees pooling their money for regional buying. With numbers to back up the buying decision, community newspapers are now a viable alternative for those pools.

As of last year, community newspapers were garnering 9% of all media spending in Canada, putting them sixth in terms of total advertising revenue by medium, but last when it comes to national ad dollars.

Stanger, who is also co-chair of the ComBase tripartite committee, says there is no guarantee that every community newspaper is going to gain the same amount of new business when the study is complete – but at least it puts them in the running.

‘This study is going to be used by media planners and agencies who plan national business and who, if for no other reason than this information is now in their computers when it hasn’t been in the past, will be forced to consider community newspapers on an equal footing with all other media. When they push the magic button on their computer to do an optimizer and ask how to best spend the client’s money, it will churn the numbers and come back to tell you whether community newspapers should be considered. Right now they don’t even get considered.’

The best possible outcome of ComBase for him, Stanger says, will be having the numbers to back up his recommendation of community newspapers to clients, something he hasn’t been able to do in nearly 30 years in the business.

Debbie King, EVP, managing director at media buyer Optimedia in Toronto, agrees ComBase has the potential to attract more advertising to community newspapers, mainly because there was so little information on which to base decisions before the study.

She says it’s imperative that buyers have this information, particularly in today’s marketplace where accountability is of great importance to advertisers.

King was surprised that the readership numbers reported in the pilot survey were so high, but says that readership, while important, is not the only hurdle for community papers to overcome. (For more on the actual results, see ‘Shattering the myths’ on page 34.)

‘There are two other issues, one is lack of consistent sizing [of the ad specs] which runs you into extra production dollars and, two, depending on how far you’re going with community papers, when you start counting up the costs, it can be really expensive. But the top of the food chain is going to be readers and now they have [proof of] the readership.’

Kathy Shapka, VP, media director at Palmer Jarvis DDB in Edmonton, says buyers in regional markets such as Edmonton already know that community newspapers are a great way to reach the local market, but those sitting in Toronto trying to decide whether to buy community newspapers in Alberta have been in the dark until now.

ComBase may not actually encourage non-community newspaper users to buy into them, she says, but it will make buyers who have been investing in them feel good about past decisions.

‘The option of community newspapers has always been there,’ says Shapka. ‘Now it’s not so much having the option, it’s having a quantifiable option. I think that’s more important.’

Patricia McGregor, VP and GM at Genesis Media in Toronto, believes that advertisers today are ready to look at any means that are viable and justifiable for reaching consumers – and community papers now meet that requirement.

McGregor says Genesis has used community papers at one time or another for almost all of its clients, but to date it’s always been a bit of a leap of faith to do so.

‘In the past we’ve done demographic profiles of the areas the client is targeting, not the readership of the papers, but just identifying the areas we want to go after. ComBase should help put clients’ minds at ease as to who is actually reading these papers. We have used community papers in the past, and I can see that moving forward this study will make clients a little more comfortable in our continuing to do so.’

The one pilot study result that McGregor finds most interesting is that readership was not affected by whether a publication had paid or free circulation.

That’s because one of the assumptions that advertisers and buyers have always made about print media is that readership of free publications is not as valuable as those with paid subscriptions.

If the paid versus unpaid factor doesn’t affect the quality of readers, particularly those with high household incomes, it will have advertisers and buyers reassessing how they view circulation of daily newspapers and magazines as well.

Advertisers, particularly some large retail chains, have been looking forward to viewing the ComBase numbers.

Joseph Wuest, advertising GM for Edmonton-based furniture retailer The Brick, already uses community newspapers, although not in every market. The Brick handles media buying in-house with a staff of 20 and makes its buying decisions on a market-by-market basis. With 65 stores in about 30 markets, Wuest says it’s important that he follow media developments pretty closely – one of the reasons he got involved with the ComBase tripartite committee.

‘I think one of the most encouraging things we’ve seen so far with the pilot is in regard to readership. We get very positive numbers for community newspapers, and when we ask about the dailies, the numbers match very closely what NADbank is saying.

‘NADbank is established in the marketplace and everybody looks at it and feels it’s right. It gives us the feeling that the numbers that the community newspapers are coming up with are good numbers.’

Wuest believes that many people will be surprised at just how strong the readership numbers for community newspapers really are, as well as the high household income of readers, which was found to be pretty much consistent across all markets.

Community newspaper publishers, of course, say they were not at all surprised by that finding. Cal Dallas, publisher of the Red Deer Express, which serves one of the five markets surveyed in the pilot, says because circulation targets single-family dwellings, readers are mainly homeowners concerned about local schools, sports and community happenings that could have an impact on their property taxes.

‘In the case of the Red Deer Express, there were instances where readership in the higher income households was significantly higher on a ‘read last issue’ basis than in some of the other brackets. That told me a couple of things: one was that we have a franchise on presenting community news, and the other was that the development of the sections in our paper was paying off in terms of the kinds of households that were taking notice of our paper.’

Some of the CCNA members not yet on board for ComBase’s national rollout are concerned about the whether the benefits of the study will outweigh the cost of participation, while others, such as the CanWest papers, aren’t taking part because they’re on the block.

However, the recent purchase of CanWest’s community properties in the Atlantic provinces and Saskatchewan (see ‘Transcontinental’ on page 32) by GTC Transcontinental Group could result in those newly purchased papers being involved after all, since other Transcontinental papers are already participating in the study.

But even without full buy-in, the CCNA is steaming ahead with the national rollout, says Elena Dunn, executive director of ComBase, because at 300 papers, it will still be the largest print study in the marketplace.

‘In Toronto, for example, we measured 81 publications. In Red Deer we measured 43. So if we have 294 markets that translates into hundreds of publications and is the biggest study out there. I’m anticipating that participation will grow over time. This is just the next wave and we’re continuing to accept participants.’

Dunn says that right now the study will not reflect French-language readership because the CCNA only represents English papers, but the 150 papers represented by its francophone counterpart, Les Hebdos du Québec, will be invited to join in later this year.

Meanwhile, about half the English-language papers in Quebec have decided not to take part, because they feel the ComBase numbers will actually make things worse for them.

In a letter to the CCNA, Sharon McCully, editor of the English-language Quebec-based paper The Sherbrooke Record explained why she wants nothing to do with the study.

‘Quebec’s English-speaking population is not concentrated in one area but situated in pockets throughout the province where they compete in a market with French-language weeklies that capture 85% to 90% of the market,’ she wrote. ‘For example, in the Sherbrooke area alone, of the 147,000 residents, 7,000 have English as a mother tongue. The area is covered by two French-language weeklies, each with a total market circulation of 45,000 and an English-language weekly which serves a wider area with a circulation of 3,000. If you were selling a car, where would you place your ad?’

McCully added that the CCNA’s request to sign on was like ‘asking publishers to pay thousands of dollars for the privilege of shooting themselves in the foot.’

Even with these concerns, ComBase’s Dunn says more than a dozen English-language publications in Quebec are participating because they believe it’s a positive step for the industry as a whole. And, she adds, the door is not closed to others who want to sign on.

Caroline Andrews, regional director of Transcontinental Media, Eastern Ontario, says she made the investment in ComBase to further the community paper industry, not just to benefit her papers, because Transcontinental already invests a lot in readership studies for its papers.

It’s imperative, says Andrews, that the CCNA members have these statistics to prove the value of community newspapers.

‘I think the perception of some media buyers is that we’re small town, rural newspapers with a couple of hundred copies and that we’re not audited and don’t have readership studies. We have to change that perception.’

The ComBase methodology

The ComBase study was designed by Toronto-based Thompson Lightstone to mirror the methodology of NADbank as closely as possible. The goal was to produce results that are comparable to those for daily newspapers, since dailies are included in the research.

Like most major media studies, ComBase is built on StatsCan geography, the standard used by advertisers and agencies. This standardization also allows community newspapers to be assessed by media planners on the same footing as all other media and allows ComBase to be part of the Canadian Media Directors Council’s (CMDC) data integration project.

The results of the pilot have already been provided free of charge to subscribers of Harris Media Systems and IMS-Interactive Market Systems planning software. By summer of next year, the numbers from the national study will be added to the mix.

The ComBase pilot captured newspaper readership in five markets, and 300 of the association’s 677 member papers have signed on for the national rollout slated for this September. At least 20 to 50 more papers are expected to sign on before the end of August and others can be added as new waves of the study take place.