A little misleading: How newspapers confound sales and readership

An edited version of this article appeared in Village magazine, September 2015 edition

One statistic shows the problem with the readership statistics collected by Newsbrands Ireland (formerly National Newspapers of Ireland) in the most recent survey of Irish newspaper readers.

Ten percent. That’s how much Irish Times readership is reported to have increased in the year to June 2015. The survey, carried out by Millward Brown, shows a total of 427,000 readers of the newspaper during that period.

Trouble is, Audit Bureau of Circulation figures for the same time period show newspaper sales in decline. In the first six months of 2015, the Irish Times sold an average of 76,194 print copies – down 5.2% year-on-year. With its digital edition having a daily total of 4,853, the combined sale was 81,047. And digital sales come with a caveat, as only 18 of those subscriptions were sold at “full rate”.

The inconsistency is not simply on view at the Irish Times.

The Irish Independent ABC figure, for example, is down 2,859 (2.5%), yet readership holds up, and the Examiner drops 1,828 (5.2%) as readership increases. Other papers show falls in readership, yet similar disconnects in the scale of changes can be seen across all daily and Sunday titles.

Clearly, something is going on here. How can a newspaper show up to a ten percent boost in readership while circulation falls by five percent?

Part of the explanation comes from the combining of different news products. The JNRS measures readers in print, digital, and those who read both. And while circulation revenue declines tell their own story, the most recent story registered an overall increase of 27% in online readership. The Herald registered an astonishing 78% increase online.

Readership, as measured by the JNRS, has always been a more slippery concept than circulation. Circulation is on the face of it simple. Just count how many copies are sold. Titles have some leeway in that they can give away discount copies, or distribute bulks to hotels, but those numbers are broken out too by the Audit Bureau of Circulation, so att the end of the day there’s a concrete number that the ABC can stand over.

Readership can be more amorphous.

First, there’s the passaround theory. After I finish the paper I paid for, the theory goes, it may be picked up read by a co-worker, or a spouse or other household member, or a friend in the pub. So as a rule, there’s more than one reader for every copy sold. Precisely how many is a matter of some debate.

Second, not every reader buys a copy of the paper every day. In fact, fewer than one in every twelve newspaper buyers are consistent daily purchasers. Some readers buy only one paper a week, or two, or three. And some only make a purchase once a fortnight, or once a month. So while the paper may sell around X copies on any given day, a lot more than X individuals will have bought at least one paper over the course of a week, or month, or year. Readership statistics can therefore be subject to recall rates. The survey asks if a respondent read a paper “yesterday” (or “in the last week” in the case of Sundays) but it cannot control for those who misremember how long it was since they last read.

JNRS have not adjusted their measurement techniques since 2012, so a change in the definition of “reader” since the last survey period is not the explanation. It seems more likely that behavior is changing. More people read papers, but they buy fewer copies. The industry is losing daily buyers, but gaining some new occasional buyers. Unfortunately for the bottom line, the former outnumber the latter.

And then there’s online readership. Unfortunately, while the strength of online numbers suggest old readers of the paper are being more than replaced by new readers online, those new readers aren’t worth as much to the circulation departments, or advertisers. Most online readers bring in no circulation revenue at all, either accessing news that is offered for free, or behind a porous subscription paywall.

The paywall trade-off, bringing in paying customers, but at the cost of advertising revenues because most browsers are unwilling to pay, accounts for the extremely leaky Irish Times paywall. Having delayed its introduction several times, Tara Street eventually went ahead with the change earlier this year. A second paywalled daily news product from the Sunday Times team, which would have competed directly with the Irish Times, is currently stuck in development hell as the two Times titles argue before the courts over whether consumers would be confused by the two similarly names websites/apps.