Do Newspapers Count Online Readers Fairly?

apples and oranges
The way many newspapers count print vs. online readers is like comparing apples and oranges. (Image by telex via Flickr)

Newspaper publishers and advertising managers routinely toss around print and online readership numbers — but sometimes in ways that don’t make sense, and that might even miss opportunities to build revenue, business, and community.

Yesterday Dan Thornton, community marketing manager at Bauer Media, explained why it’s dangerous to compare print figures to Web site statistics.

It all boils down to this…

Thornton points out that in the UK, sales figures for print copies of the Guardian and Observer newspapers typically are multiplied by three to take into account shared readership, based on circulation research. However, online readership statistics generally fail to account for online reading that happens beyond the news organization’s Web site…

“It’s easy to overestimate the online figures in comparison to print products,” he writes. But, “I have to say that I think comparing print and online readerships directly …is equivalent to comparing the number of people who drive cars with the number of people with vowels in their name.”

Thornton suggests that if your newspaper factors shared readership into your print circulation, then to be fair you should also try to estimate how many people encounter your online news without ever logging into your site as a visitor. This includes people who:

  • Block cookies
  • Use a feed reader or personal home page (like MyYahoo)
  • Get news or headlines via social media or news aggregators
  • Access mobile or cached versions of your news (which often aren’t estimated adequately)
  • Read reposts of news stories elsewhere online

According to Thornton, “There’s a big elephant in the news room. Whoever said that print newspaper readers were guaranteed to only be getting their online news from newspapers?”

Therefore: If you think your online readership (as estimated by direct Web site traffic) only represents only a small percentage of your estimated print circulation — think again. When considering the future of your business, how many people visit your site ultimately may be less relevant than how many people connect with your news content and brand via any online or mobile channel.

I think Thornton has a good point. The catch is recognizing the opportunities inherent in this broader view, and (in the short term) communicating that value effectively to advertisers and other potential partners.

…As a side note, to illustrate how diverse online distribution of your content can build your brand and attract readers, I first heard about Thornton and his post via this OJaggregator tweet, a headline service from fellow Tidbits contributor Paul Bradshaw’s Online Journalism Blog, which republished Thornton’s article. A link from that repost led me to Thornton’s blog, The Way of the Web. I liked what I saw there so much that I’ve subscribed to that blog’s RSS feed and am now following Thornton on Twitter. So he’s now part of my regular fodder for Tidbits, my own blog Contentious, and to pass along to my nearly 3,300 Twitter followers.

Which goes to show how potential ripple effects from distributed online or mobile encounters with your content (even just your headlines) can yield surprising benefits to your brand. Thus, trying to be too controlling about where and how your content appears online can work against you in the big picture.

(NOTE: I originally published this article in Poynter’s E-Media Tidbits.)

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4 thoughts on Do Newspapers Count Online Readers Fairly?

  1. Wow! Thanks… I’m almost speechless (typeless?).

    I think the answer, as much as I can establish, is to look at trends for your online/offline readerships, use the distinct on and offline revenue and audience figures to have an idea of when revenue in particular is in the same ballpark, and to be looking at all those figures in the context of totals for internet usage, and competitor figures (Including those sites who are competing for the attention of your reader, even if they’re not a direct competitor in terms of content).

    That’s about as far as I’ve got so far, anyway!

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  4. It’s a fair point, but there are a few problems with it. Publishers and ad managers are concerned with the number of readers who see the ads in the paper. Therefore, shared copies equate to more people seeing the paper and the ads, and thus justification for charging advertisers more money.

    When it comes to online, yes, they might be missing the non-cookie crowd. But do the readers getting the material on a feed see the ads that would appear on a magazine’s or newspaper’s website? Do the people only skimming headlines in aggregate see them? From an advertising perspective, those readers are pretty much irrelevant.

    That said, those of us who write the stories would probably like to see them counted.

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