In the 1980s newspapers started increasingly hearing from advertisers that they wanted to know who newspapers' readers were. This flummoxed them. Newspapers' readers were everybody. Merthe's and Vaughn-Ragsdale and Gold's had never asked them who their readers were. (A gold star to anyone who posts all three cities of those department stores.)
Breaking down circulation by county, newspapers had been doing for years. By zip code was harder. For smaller newspapers, zip codes had never mattered. In big cities it mattered to advertisers a great deal, but delivery routes were not by zip code. No one thought in those terms. Some newspapers had no idea who their customers were. One of the reasons for the Detroit newspaper strike of 1995 was that the drivers and distributors controlled the circulation lists and the newspapers couldn't say who was getting the paper. None of this had mattered when the newspaper said "We have 600,000 circulation!" and Hudson's said, "Great! We'll buy 15 pages on Sunday!"
But in the 1970s, advances in printing technology made it possible to produce a specialty publication for any interest, just as changes in the number of storefronts available, a more spread-out population, and a greater inventory of goods on offer made it impossible for a department store to offer a representative sample of everything. So you had Cat Litter Box Scoop World, and advertisers of litter box scoops and anti-furball medicines knew who was reading it and targeted their advertising.
Newspapers said: Everyone reads us! Advertisers said: We don't want everyone! Tell us why they read you. Newspapers said: Because they want to read the news! Advertisers said: Why is someone "reading the news" interested in my product? Newspapers said: Because we have 600,000 circulation! And things just drifted along, with newspapers raising rates and depending more on classified revenue to make up for their losses to advertisers, who felt that huge portions of their ad budget were being wasted on readers who had no interest in their product and would have none, ever.
Last week I noted three studies -- by Gallup, Pew, and Lee -- that seemed to indicate that at least at the moment, there is a floor of print-only readership somewhere in the area of 30 percent at bottom and 40 percent at top, even among 18-to-29-year-olds; add in print-and-online and it gets better.
The disadvantage to newspapers is that they can no longer shout: We have 600,000 circulation!
The advantage is: In an era of unlimited choice, these are people who have chosen to take your publication. Why? What are they looking for? How can that audience be marketed? They're no longer buying the paper to play the numbers based on Cha Ching or check whether AT&T went up .02. Among those readers, your newspaper has a niche of some sort. What is it? Who are they?
The median age of TV viewers is now 50. For newspapers, it is above 50. The median age of the U.S. population is 38. However, that includes people below 18. Readership studies always are of people 18 and above. What is the median age of people 18 and above? (Tell me if you can find this figure, I can't; but there are indications it's about 48.) But 75 percent of the U.S. population is above 18. To what degree does the age level of readership of newspapers match the average age of people 18 and up? (In other words, if you drop people under 18, if the average age is then 48, if the average age of newspaper readership is, say, 51, it would stack up nicely.) And are newspapers really trying to sell themselves to people under 18? Have they ever been? As the story on the age of TV viewers notes, the average age of Nickelodeon viewers is 10. It's useful in the TV world to know those figures; does including under-18s make any sense for newspapers?
People under 18 are not newspapers' target readership, in print or online. People over 65 skew the readership data because of their heavy reliance on print -- caused probably as much by not needing to waste time at work as their dislike of computers. Newspapers need to sell their reach, whatever it is, among people 18 to 65 and figure out a way to avoid having their penetration in this market be skewed out of recognition by both the absence of young people and the dominance of senior citizens, whose massive use of newspapers makes it too easy for people to dismiss the medium as simply Lawrence Welk on paper.
Newspapers' online strategy has been flawed by trying to reproduce on the Internet what they are in print, while not recognizing that while in print it makes sense to have a little bit of everything, the online world in itself is a little bit of everything. (Department stores had the same problem once malls became enclosed; an enclosed mall is in essence a department store, so what is the point of a department store in a department store?) But even so, newspapers can use declining readership as an opportunity to either define the readers they have, or increasingly try to market themselves to specific readers they have and forget others. This is happening with the geographic pullbacks but it doubtless needs to go further. And yes, it means trying to figure out who your target market is, instead of simply saying: It's everybody. Nobody wants everybody.