OLD Media Moves

IBD article on newspaper circulation is debunked

February 23, 2006

Late last week, I sent an e-mail to the UNC journalism faculty about an upcoming article in Investor’s Business Daily on newspaper circulation. The article’s main thesis was that the circulation woes of the newspaper business are not as bad as many newspapers make it out to be.

Investor's Business Daily

Newspapers have countered the declines in paper circulation through a growing readership on their Web sites. According to IBD reporter Brian Deagon, a business journalist for 24 years, newspapers are also adding secondary Web sites that appeal to a younger, hipper audience. Internet users visiting Web sites continue to hit new highs, now at more than 55 million readers. One of the examples in the article was the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, which claimed it reached 84 percent of its audience when factoring in Internet readers.

“The state of the newspaper business is not as dramatic as stories report,” said Gary Meo, of Scarborough Research, an independent research firm that monitors the industry, in the article.

When I sent the story out, I knew I would get at least one response. And professor Phil Meyer, who recently wrote the book “The Vanishing Newspaper: Saving Journalism in the Information Age,” did not disappoint. On the Nieman Watchdog site today, Meyer explained to the rest of the world what was wrong with the IBD article.

Said Meyer: “So where do the 84% and the other large numbers described by Investor’s Business Daily come from? They represent the net total of readership accumulated across a seven-day period plus those who look at the newspaper’s Web site at least once in a 30-day period. Big difference. Newspapers have always looked for numbers that put their situation in the best possible light, and they have every reason to do so.”

Later, he added, “Another kind of error is to compare a newspaper’s total circulation with its city size, either in population or number of households. The Wall Street Journal, in a story describing the success of the Bismarck, N.D., Tribune, fell into this trap. (“Unlike Big Dailies, a Paper Prospers in Bismarck, N.D.â€? February 8, 2006.)

“’With little competition, the Tribune sells nearly 28,000 papers – or about one copy for every two people,’ said writer Joseph T. Hallinan. The problem with this comparison is that those 28,000 papers are distributed across a vast 24-county area, far beyond the city limits of Bismarck with its population of about 56,000. ”

Read Meyer’s rebuttal of the IBD article here. It’s a nice primer for anyone writing about newspaper circulation and penetration.

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