Decline in Newspaper Readership Should Not Be Overestimated

By Mennenga, John T. | Editor & Publisher, February 15, 1992 | Go to article overview

Decline in Newspaper Readership Should Not Be Overestimated


Mennenga, John T., Editor & Publisher


Right up front, I want to join virtually every other newspaper person in America right now in expressing my great concern over declining newspaper readership in the last two decades.

However, I want to express even greater concern about the damage being done to the newspaper medium by newspaper professional who unintentionally, but repeatedly, exaggerate, overestimate, or otherwise misstate the decline in newspaper readership.

Obviously, the exaggeration of declining newspaper readership is not intentional; rather, it is a result of a misunderstanding of how newspaper readership information should be collected, calculated, and trended.

Thus, what follows is an effort to discuss (1) the measurement of newspaper readership and (2) the direction and magnitude of changes in newspaper readership.

First, as a preface, though this error is now made less often than in years past, it still appears all too frequently, namely, confusing newspaper subscribers with newspaper readers.

By now, everyone should know that there is a difference between newspaper subscribers and newspaper readers.

That difference is summed up by the knowledge that the average copy of a newspaper is read by about 2.2 adults.

Thus, there are 59 million newspaper subscribers or single-copy purchasers, but over 113 million newspaper readers (113 million divided by 59 million is less than 2.2 because some adults read more than one newspaper).

Now, turning to the measurement of readership, there are several varieties: (a) the "regular, occasional, sometimes, not at all" kind of measure; (b) the "everyday" readership measure; and (c) the "yesterday" or "last Sunday" measure.

In order, method (a)d has not generally been considered the most "scientific" measure because such terms as regular and occasional mean different things to different respondents, i.e., what is regular for you may be only occasional for me.

This is not to say that such a readership technique does not have value but it is to say that it is less specific than is needed by the medium for measuring its daily impact on readers and advertisers.

Method (b) is, in my judgment, where most of the industry's difficulties originate because "everyday" newspaper readership is not, repeat not, an estimate of "average daily readership."

For one thing, reading a newspaper "everyday" is not even a realistic possibility for adults in markets where Saturday and/or Sunday newspapers are not available.

For another thing, how many of us in the newspaper profession, including this writer, can say we read a newspaper "everyday"--even when we are ill, when we are traveling, when we are celebrating holidays, and so on?

Thus, it is not surprising that the proportion of American adults who say they read a newspaper "everyday" is generally low: I've read from as low as 33% to as high as just over 50% (cited by James K. Batten, chairman of Knight-Ridder, in an article by Alex Jones in the New York Times.

What is surprising, unfortunately, is that "everyday" is so often mistaken for "average day" readership.

Daily readership as measured by method (c) is and has been the "gold standard" of newspaper audience measurement since 1961, when it was reviewed by the Advertising Research Foundation.

(For a thorough discussion, see Press and Public: Who reads what when where and why in American newspapers written by Leo Bogart, published by Laurence Erlbaum Associates, Hillsdale, N.J.)

The "yesterday" measure of readership quantifies the number and percentage of adults who can recall reading a newspaper the previous day. …

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