By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Counting readers

I’ve been seriously under the weather the past couple of days, and I’m wary about trying to post when I’m feeling as woolly-headed as I am right now. But I do want to call your attention to Robert Gavin’s story in today’s Globe about efforts by people in the newspaper business to convince advertisers that print and online readers need to be considered together.

Yes, print readership is dropping like a rock, but Web readership continues to rise. A reader’s a reader, right? Unfortunately, that’s not the way the advertising business has looked at it. Even aside from the fact that there still aren’t nearly as many online readers as print readers, ad executives have continued to insist that a Web reader isn’t as valuable as a print reader. That’s got to change.

My Northeastern colleague Steve Burgard, director our School of Journalism, tells Gavin:

The challenge is to get advertisers to buy into this new model of counting readers. This is a transition period. The question is, “Will revenues recover?”

Meanwhile, Sean McCarthy, late of the Herald, presents some figures from Scarborough Research showing, again, that you just can’t measure circulation without considering the online component.

As you’ll see, what’s especially valuable about the Scarborough numbers is that they purport to take into account people who use both the print and the Web editions, thus eliminating some overlap. On a weekly basis, Scarborough found that the Globe’s print edition reaches 42 percent of the local market, and 47 percent when the Web is factored in. Comparable numbers for the Herald are 25 percent and 26 percent.

One big problem, as I’ve noted before, is that Web readership is infinitely measurable — too measurable for the good of the news business, perhaps. If you have a busy week at work and pitch your stack of unopened Globes at the end of the week, no advertiser will be the wiser. By contrast, an online advertiser will know exactly how many readers saw her ad, how many clicked on it and how many used it to buy something.

There’s no going back, but right now the formula completely favors the advertiser. There’s got to be some way of restoring the balance.

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  1. Tony

    I mention something similar on my blog today, that circ numbers and online visits, should be combined to give the true penetration level. However, at the same time, the American Bureau of Circulation – or whatever the firm is called, needs to get rid of the formula of counting each newspaper sold as 2.3 actual viewers reading the newspaper! It’s a total racket. It would be like a news/talk radio station saying, Yeah, we only got a rating of 6, but it’s actually 18, since there were three people in each car that had the news/talk station on! Try selling that to a marketing firm and watch them laugh you right out of the building!

  2. todd

    Web readers will never be as valuable as print readers as long as advertisers continue to try to be as annoying as possible thereby providing the impetus for developing ad-thwarting software. Interstitial ads are not only annoying, they are potentially dangerous (for certain definitions of “danger”). And the next time the Globe (or anyone else) pops up a seizure inducing spaz ad or an ad that starts blaring out of the speakers of my PC while I’m sitting in my nice, quite cube will be the last time I visit the site in quite some time.Print ads just aren’t that annoying.

  3. Steve

    I’m not at all familiar with the business of media, but why is it that “the formula completely favors the advertiser”? From a naive economic perspective, it doesn’t make sense to me.Isn’t it a question of how much the advertisers will pay? (And how much utility the advertisers get for their money?) If you’ve got the data to justify it, set your rates accordingly and see if the advertisers buy.Or is it that the print advertising rates are too high? (Maybe because of the perceived benefit?)

  4. Anonymous

    interesting post, dan.

  5. Anonymous

    The moreinteresting point is that if you look at the numbers that McCarthy points out, the web reader and the print reader are mostly the same reader, adding the online reader only nets you 5% more penetration with the GLobe, combo and only 1% Herald, It looks like you need to go outside the building to reach new readrs. and gain market penetration.

  6. Anonymous

    Let me ask two stupid questions. Is it true that far less advertising can appear on a computer screen than on a single newspaper page? And isn’t it easier to ignore an ad on a screen than on paper? And doesn’t a newspaper of 40 pages have many more ads than a web site, especially including classifieds? And aren’t newspapers often read by more than one person in a household, which isn’t always the case with web sites? I guess that’s 4 stupid questions.

  7. Zach Everson

    I only read newspapers online and with the Firefox Ad Blocker Plus extension, I rarely see any ads.

  8. Peter Porcupine

    IMHO, we’re going to wind up with online subscription, eventually.AND – Deval’s plan to allow municipalities to use web sites as ‘publication’ for legal ads will be another nail in the coffin of tree-based journalism, as legal ads ar all they have in the days of Monster, Ebay and Craig’s List.

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