This column originally was published in Editor & Publisher Magazine and is being reprinted with permission. To subscribe to the magazine so you can see the full array of industry coverage when it first appears in print, click here.
“I sell bellybuttons,” said Robert M. McCormick, one of the greatest newspaper ad salesmen who ever lived.
That‘s the best description you‘ll ever hear of the classic mass-media business model, which worked wondrously well from the time the Boston News-Letter debuted in 1704 until, say, five or ten years ago.
Unfortunately, many publishers today still invest too heavily in research aimed at persuading an increasingly skeptical world of the value of the bellybutton business – and not enough in learning about the people who ought to be their readers.
The dearth of objective market research about newspaper readers not only could lead publishers into making wrong decisions about the future of their business but it also stands a good chance of undermining their credibility among advertisers. Here’s what I mean:
When the Audit Bureau of Circulations reported in April that daily newspaper circulation had tumbled some 8% from the prior year, the Newspaper Association of America promptly put out a press release saying Scarborough Research determined that “nearly 100 million” Americans, or 43% of the adult population, had read a print newspaper in the last seven days.
Good story, if true. But let’s get a second opinion.
When researchers at the Pew Center for People & the Press in 2008 asked Americans where they got their news, only 25% of the population said it was from print newspapers. This was down from the 34% who said they read print papers in 2006.
Do you suppose the number of newspaper readers jumped from 25% in 2008 to 43% in 2010? Me neither. How can the data be so divergent?
The explanation, as researchers at both Scarborough and Pew attest, is that you can get different answers by asking different questions.
In the interests of helping publishers claim as large a number of bellybuttons as possible, Scarborough uses a long-standing methodology called “aided recall” to count anyone who might have “read or looked at” a local newspaper in the last seven days. By contrast, Pew asks people, “Did you happen to read a newspaper yesterday?”
“You can make numbers go either way, based on the question you ask,” said Gary A. Meo, the senior vice president who runs the newspaper division at Scarborough. “If you ask an unaided question like Pew does, you will get lower readership numbers [for newspapers] than we do. If you ask people their source for news and rank the responses in order, newspapers are more than likely going to show up low. Most people don’t think of newspapers first. They think of TV and the Internet.”
At Pew, researcher Carroll Doherty said his measure of newspaper readership is based on a question that has been asked in polls for nearly 40 years. Back in 1965, 71% of respondents said they had read a paper on the prior day. In 2008, 25% of people said they read the print product and another 9% of respondents said they got the news from a newspaper website or through a combination of a print paper and a newspaper site.
“Our measure is probably a conservative estimate of newspaper reading,” said Doherty, conceding that other questions can suggest a higher newspaper readership. “The reason we stick with this question is that we have a long trend on it that makes it possible to track continuing changes in behavior.”
Now, I don’t object to newspapers using legitimate research techniques to put the best spin on the remaining audience they have. They need those readers and advertisers to help finance their transition to the digital realms that represent the future for their franchises.
But publishers also need an honest appraisal of where they stand in relation to competing sources of news, entertainment and advertising information. To that end, they need to conduct the kind of objective consumer research that informs the activities of every self-respecting purveyor of taco chips, aluminum foil or plug-in air fresheners.
With most newspaper executives distracted by slumping revenues, sagging profits and shrinking resources, they have not had the time, resources and emotional inclination to invest in taking a hard-eyed, hard-nosed and hard-headed look at their businesses.
But that’s exactly what they need to do in order to create honest appraisals of their Strengths Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. Equipped with a SWOT analysis, publishers can create SWAT teams to identify new audiences, launch new products and tap new revenue streams to replace their flagging core products.
If publishers conduct strictly self-serving research to support what increasingly appears to be an unsustainable business model, they can’t possibly make the right decisions. The only ones they fool will be themselves.
(c) 2010 Editor & Publisher Magazine