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Get Smart About Your Readers: Ideas & Insights
Wednesday, July 09, 2008

News flash: Readers have NOT left the building

(Mary Nesbitt)

The 2008 RI tracking study of newspaper and online readership in 100 U.S communities of various sizes has some good news and bad news.
  • Readership of the local daily newspaper among the general population is down a little from the last reading in 2006, but that result may be due to seasonal variation.

  • Readership among 18-24-year-olds in the general population continues to slowly decline; but the habit is fairly stable for 45-plus.

  • People who read newspapers say they spend, on average, 27 minutes with them on weekdays, and 57 minutes on Sundays. The first figure has stayed stable, but the latter figure has been slowly dropping since we first started tracking in 2002.

  • Readers continue to engage with the newspaper, on average, more than five days a week.

  • On average they complete 60 percent of the paper on weekdays and 62 percent on Sundays – again, stable habits.

  • The penetration of newspaper Web sites is still quite low in most communities, though it should be noted that we measured response only to the main site, not to related sites whose ownership consumers might not recognize.
The 2008 results surprised me, as they did last time in 2006. Why aren't they much worse, when the imminent demise of newspapers seems to be all we ever hear about?

The short answer is that reading customers aren't deserting newspapers at anything approaching the rate that advertising customers are. That is no consolation for newspaper company employees who are losing their jobs, and it's a challenge, to say the least, for a smaller staff to produce, sell and deliver a high-quality local news report for the people who want it.

But make no mistake: lots of people still want it and lots are paying attention to the local newspaper.

As the graphic shows, Readership Behavior Scores (calculated on a 1-7 scale) among the general adult population have averaged 3.4 over the last six years, with variations likely due, in whole or part, to seasonal variations. When we take non-readers out of the mix, readers of the local daily newspaper registered a 4.7 score this year, a level that has actually risen slowly since the first measurement in 2002.

As well as (pleasantly) surprising me, some of the results disappointed me, especially in respect to Web sites. I don't think it's realistic to expect frequent and intense use of a newspaper's main site by a large proportion of the population. There are too many other goodies on the Web. There are many other sites that "own" categories like national and international news, sports and business, lifestyle or entertainment. A significant proportion of locals don't care much about local news, at least not enough to seek out regular doses of it.

But 62 percent of respondents said they had never visited the local newspaper's Website, and only 14 percent said they had visited between the last seven to 30 days, numbers that have improved only a little over the last five years. The Site Usage Measurement (SUM) score for the general population is a feeble 1.26 on a 1-7 scale. When non-users are removed from the sample, Web site users score 2.54.

Further, readers are more engaged with print than with the Web site. Ratings for four experiences – "gives me something to talk about", "looks out for my interests", "ad usefulness" and "touches and inspires me" were significantly higher for the newspaper than for the site. (A fifth experience, "trust and credibility" was equivalent, indicating that the print brand on this experience dimension may carry over to other platforms.)

What lies ahead on the reading-customer side of the equation? The trends are clear, if slow-moving. Low-reading groups will continue to take their low-reading habits with them as they age. The very youngest adults have media and news habits very different from their parents. For the first time in six years we are seeing RBS scores dropping among people who also look at the newspaper's Website.

Is it asking the impossible to expect newspapers to maintain a relevant, engaging print product for that large swathe of the population that clearly still reads and enjoys print: and to create something differently compelling online; and to build a new business model? Perhaps. But the 110 million adult Americans who rely on their daily newspaper are counting on you and us to find a way.

Reader Behavior Scores, local daily newspapers 2008
Local daily newspaper Web sites: Usage and experiences, 2008
National RBS Questionnaire 2008
The 100 Impact Newspaper Markets

By Mary Nesbitt (
Mary Nesbitt is managing director of the Readership Institute.

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Posted at 12:42 PM
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I think you have to post the methadology of your survey, because I see around me every day that people aren't reading the newspapers to which they are subcribing. I live in an upscale apartment project, and newspapers are left by the mailbox near my front door. These are papers bought by occupants, and I've noted in the last couple of years that they just sit there uncollected until the cleaning people come through and take them away. If surveyed, these people would say they are not only newspaper readers but subscribers. Why would they pay for newspapers they don't read? Perhaps vanity and wishing to be seen as intellectuals. This observation is buttressed a little by a friend who owns a small chain of stores. He advertises, but complains that his ads don't draw. He is withdrawing his newspaper ads in this downturn because of this, and he says other stores have already gone to the Internet because they know from click-through data that their ads are at least read. Finaly observation, but newspaper stands at the local store are overflowing with unbought newspapers, I guess partly because newspapers are fudging their circulation figures.

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous at July 11, 2008 at 12:18 PM


Even without the methodology, I do tend to believe that readership is not down that much overall.

As always the devil is in the details. How is readership in the money demos of 25-54 and 18-49? Stable readership 45+ isn't going to do much for you.

Classifieds! That money is gone and it's never coming back.

I never believed the newspaper problem was a user problem. It's a business problem. Journalism is expensive and there's no more classified advertising to "subsidize" it anymore

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous at July 11, 2008 at 12:25 PM


Which newspaper circulation department is paying for these surveys? How do you reconcile your survey's findings with audited newspaper circulation reports, showing startling declines in newspaper sales when you are finding readership is not declining? This defies logic: there are not more eyeballs looking at newspapers.

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous at July 11, 2008 at 12:55 PM


Thank you for the comments, above.

I'd like to be clear about what this study is and is not. It is a readership, not a circulation study.

It rolls three dimensions of readership -- frequency, time spent with the newspaper, and completeness of reading -- into one score. Thus it measures how "occupied" people are (or are not) with the newspaper, not simply whether or not they looked at a newspaper. Other studies, equally valid, measure frequency only.

The sample is 100 local daily newspapers, chosen in a way that makes it representative of the newspaper industry as a whole. We are interested in following the fortunes of newspapers of all sizes. Thus there is a proportionate number of large, mid-size and small newspapers in the sample. We have consistently measured those markets since 2002; they were the subject of a more complex RI study, dubbed Impact, in 2001. Other studies -- again, equally valid and consistent in the way they have measured readers and non-readers over time -- look at top 25 or top 50 markets.

The Readership Institute pays for the study.

The study does not say that readership is increasing. It says that it is fairly stable for 45+, but readership among younger groups continue to decline.

It is possible for readership to be stable when circulation is declining. It is also possible to have stable circulation in a market, but a decline in readership. But the point of our research is to track Reader Behavior Scores in the same markets over time to get a sense of how "involved" a market is with its local daily newspaper.

All of the data from the 2008 study are freely available here:

Please contact us with any questions.

Mary Nesbitt
Managing Director, Readership Institute

Posted by Anonymous Mary Nesbitt at July 11, 2008 at 2:59 PM


If I understand correctly, people read 60% of their newspaper (week day) according to your survey. And they spent an average of 27 minutes reading every day. So, it takes them only 27 minutes to read 60% of their paper? Either they don't really read the paper as much as they say or they just scan the paper. I guess both.

And who has 27 minutes to read a paper? The 60+.

Glad that you insist on the fact that young readers are changing their media habits. And that you point the difference between online readers and print readers. You have been among the people that believed it is possible to attract young readers with the print. We have seen the disaster of this strategy with the Star Tribune. The web is not the print. Different customers with different needs. And the print cannot be everything for everybody. Print needs to focus on the core audience: the 50+.

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous at July 12, 2008 at 11:02 AM


Mary Nesbitt here again. Thank you for the above comment.

Yes, there is no doubt that older people are "better" readers and there are decades of evidence showing that younger cohorts read the newspaper at lower rates than their elders, even before the digital revolution. The industry has had plenty of warning about this in the past, often with research it commissioned.

In our RBS study, we show six age breaks:
Appendix 2 looks at all adults, while Appendix 3 looks at readers only. So, for instance, we can see (p. 47) that among the newspaper-reading part of the population, 60% of 65+ spent more than 30 minutes with the weekday paper; 44% of 55-64-year-olds; 35% of 45-54-year-olds; 29% of 35-44-year-olds. Yes, older is "better" but there are still decent reading segments elsewhere.

My untested hypothesis (perhaps other researchers can chime in with evidence) is that one of the reasons older cohorts show more time with the newspaper is that they're doing the crossword, Jumble, Sudoku and other puzzles that we, ahem, aging Boomers and elders do to maintain mental agility. Other reasons include habit and available time.

On the subject of young people: we would indeed say it is possible to attract them with print. But the question is -- does it make economic sense? Often it does not, or at least not in the main paper, and sometimes not at all with print.

You may be familiar with an experiment we conducted with Star Tribune younger adult readers a few years ago. (The results are here: Our takeaway was that yes, it is possible to make the main newspaper more appealing and engaging for younger people, but doing that would entail a huge and daunting change to definitions of news and ways of covering and presenting it. Ours was a consumer study, not a strategic one -- its purpose was to provide insights into what it would take from a target audience standpoint, as opposed to whether it would make business sense.

Something I worry about is that newspapers, in focusing -- as they must -- on people who like the print experience and are engaged with the news will skew too old. We need to remember that after the age of 40 we seem to think of ourselves as 10 years younger. So striking the right note with news and advertising content and approach, sales and marketing is important.

Mary Nesbitt
Managing Director, Readership Institute

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous at July 12, 2008 at 12:53 PM


Mary, The research you've done is very valuable. We've recently completed a project for a major newspaper trying to reposition itself to advertisers so that those advertisers could better understand the value and opportunity to reach a local, well-to-do audience in an engaging manner. Our issue was not with the opportunity but with the organization's willingness to risk a new point of view in how to influence advertisers to re-engage or try for the 1st time a "multi-medium" communication platform that can deliver results.The paper's "yesterday" culture seems to be inhibiting its ability to gain the confidence of advertisers which helps to add to the downward spiral of revenues and ultimately, readership.

Posted by Blogger Upstate Steve at July 12, 2008 at 7:20 PM


In my opinion the majority of newspaper readers are aging and dying without a replacement in the pipeline. This is the same shrinking demo of the three TV network evening news. Katie Couric could not save CBS by attracting a younger viewer because there are none to attract. I will never forget this image burned into my memory. I recently accompanied my wife, a clinician to a nursing home she works at that had a large pile of newspapers freshly delivered. Right there in that moment I wondered if working in the newsprint business is the mountain I want to die on.

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous at July 15, 2008 at 3:43 AM


Good study, thank you. A couple of thoughts. It's clear newspapers are changing. I read both the print and online versions. What I'm getting is a trusted brand. Some people decide to only read one or the other. I don't really want to read my computer screen in the morning but I want to be kept up to date during the day so I read both versions. Lot's of markets are declining not just newspapers. Young people don't fish as much, they are not learning to golf, playing handball or racketball, heck, they don't even read as much---books or anything. What they are doing is playing "mind-numbing" video games and texting until their fingers drop off. Media consumption habits have changed but it's up to the schools (and parents) to educate young people on the importance of reading and that everything (like newspapers) have their place. FYI, for potential advertisers there is less ad clutter in print so I think your newspaper media buy will be well spent and potentially noticed by more readers. No, I don't work for a newspaper, just hope they can find their new business model for survivial.

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous at July 28, 2008 at 8:48 AM


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