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SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 6, 2005
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OP-ED

Circulation flawed measure to track newspapers’ vibrant audience

On Monday, newspapers across America will release their paid circulation numbers. It's a traditional way for advertisers to keep track of who might be seeing their ads.

Often accompanying these announcements are news stories about the state of our medium. Most will ask: Are newspapers dying? I say, of course not.

In an era of 24-hour cable news, more radio and television stations than we ever dreamed possible and, of course, the Internet, newspapers get a bad rap. Too often their wounds are self-inflicted. The scorekeepers in our business have failed to count readers, preferring to track the easier-to-measure metric of paid circulation.

But it's a flawed measure of the true vibrant audience newspapers attract. If television measured itself this way it would count only the number of TV sets in living rooms and family rooms, and that would be the sum of its audience.

But like its sibling medium TV, newspapers must begin to count the people who actually read a newspaper, not just those who buy one. And, when they do, a dramatically different picture will emerge. Newspapers, contrary to what you may have heard, are alive, well and building increasingly engaged and attractive readers —- people like you.

Studies show that roughly three out of four adults read a newspaper at least once a week. If you don't believe me, check the reading habits of folks at your neighborhood coffee shop, company cafeteria or any airport waiting area.

And give those readers a good hard look. They're focused. They are not to be disturbed. They are investing something more precious than money. They are investing their time, and their reward will be the knowledge they glean.

Once, on a long plane ride, I spent hours reading a stack of newspapers. When I finished, a young woman seated near me marveled at my concentration.

"I'm not really all that bright, so I use these as my 'secret' weapon," I said, patting the pile of newspapers in my lap. "They make me a whole lot smarter than the guys I compete with every day."

The woman, who said she had further to travel, warmed my newspaperman's heart with her simple request: "May I have the newspapers you've finished reading?"

Unlike other media, reading a newspaper is work. Buying one is the easy part. To actually read one is a workout for the brain and, occasionally, the heart and the soul.

It's often serious, but a good newspaper should also entertain, surprise, even amuse. And the really good ones know how to make you laugh, at yourself and the world around you. A newspaper at its best is like a good and decent longtime friend.

And your friend has found a new way to enter your life. It's called the Internet. The top local news and information sites in most cities are the ones associated with hometown newspapers. They maintain a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week presence. They join you at work and keep you posted on breaking news. They ask your opinion, then post it online. They involve you like never before. They simplify the maze of classified advertising and serve your need for local goods and services with complete, detailed directories.

These newspaper sites have grown a typical newspaper's already-substantial audience by another 10 percent to 15 percent of readers, many of whom are young, well-educated and affluent.

In Cleveland, Ohio, for instance, the local daily reaches 58 percent of all households earning more than $150,000 a year. The newspaper's Web site adds 20 percent more of those households.

Newspapers are dead or dying, right? Wrong. Dead wrong.

Dazzle your family and friends with what your newspaper can teach you each day. And amaze them with your newfound knowledge of this forever-young, still-growing medium. You'll be right and smart at the same time.

Jay Smith, chairman of the Newspaper Association of America, is president of Cox Newspapers Inc.

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