Saturday, April 26, 2008

Fall in Spring

Monday will bring the latest gloom-and-doom FastFax report, and E&P's coverage notes that once again we will see declines of 4 percent in average daily readership, more on Sundays. The article gets more gloomy when it turns to a Scarborough report.

"Gary Meo, senior vice president of print and digital media services at Scarborough Research [said]: 'In general, print [readership] is in a steady decline, and online readership is growing but the declines in print are not being offset by the increases in online readership,' he said. 'The integrated newspaper audience is declining.'

"It's not unlike what is happening with total online revenue where the online revenue growth, while steady, can't make up for the losses in print revenue. Print readership dwarfs online readership so a loss of one percentage point could mean thousands of readers. The percentage gains in online readership may be big, but it's coming off a small base...."

"Meo concedes that it will be difficult for a newspaper to grow its online audience fast enough to make up the loss for print readership. 'The numbers don't work at this point,' he said. But he also pointed out the enormous market penetration newspapers have -- 'more than any other media' he said. 'When you look at these numbers they are pretty staggering. Just the print alone in some markets you get 67% reach. Those are big numbers.'

That's right, newspapers in some markets just in print reach two-thirds of households. Nothing else does that. Yet they're toast, yesterday's technology.

And while online readership is growing, the total newspaper readership in print and online is declining. How much is online adding to print readership? I just defined the top half of the list:

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: Print 48% of market; print and online together 54%
The Sun : 51% -- 54%
The Blade: 53% -- 55%
The Buffalo News: 64% -- 66%
The Charlotte Observer: 44% -- 47%
The Columbus Dispatch: 58% -- 60%
The Des Moines Register: 70% -- 71%
The Fresno Bee: 48% -- 49%
Houston Chronicle: 51% -- 55%
The Indianapolis Star: 51% -- 53%

In most markets listed in this story. newspapers online reach between 10 and 15 percent of their own market, by Scarborough's estimation. In most markets that reach went up by 1 or 2 percentage points between 2007 and 2008. In most of these markets print reach went down by 2 to 3 percentage points in the same period.

But in nearly every market -- assuming I am reading this correctly -- the addition of online added only 2 or 3 percentage points to the newspaper's total market reach. In those that had the greatest online penetration -- Atlanta, San Diego -- it added five or six.

Which seems to me to mean that the number of people who use online news sites in their own market exclusively -- not who use NYT or USA, not who visit to find out about the Eagles -- but "the percentage of adults who have ... visited the Web site ... during the past seven days" in their own market and who didn't read their local print newspaper during the same time -- is about 3 to 4 percent of the market, on average, and that most of the people who knowingly visit our Web site already are our customers in print.

Tell me again why we need to give this away? Tell me again why this is the inevitable future? Tell me again that this is not about the product but simply about the march of technology? That the fact that print penetration rose or held steady in Atlanta, Indianapolis, Portland, Richmond, Syracuse is meaningless?

We've got to separate the future of the newspaper business from the future of; from the future of political pundits and commentators and bloggers saying that the only purpose of news media is to "join the conversation." Most of that conversation seems to concern readers of the New York Times, not of the 1,300-plus other daily newspapers.

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