Are reports on the death of newspapers greatly exaggerated?

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Jan 11, 2017

MarketingCharts staff

Through a special arrangement, presented here for discussion is a summary of a current article from MarketingCharts, a Watershed Publishing publication providing up-to-the-minute data and research to marketers.

While print newspaper ad spending has been plummeting, the same can’t be said for the print audience.

A World Press Trends survey released earlier this year indicated that print newspaper circulation was down just 2.4 percent in 2015 in North America, while the decline of print newspaper ad spending was three times larger (-7.2 percent). On a global basis, although print newspaper ad spend fell 7.5 percent, circulation increased a solid 4.9 percent.

In the U.S., print remains the preferred platform for newspaper consumption, according to recently released figures from Nielsen Scarborough. Among monthly newspaper readers, a slight majority (51 percent) read in print exclusively. Including those who read in print and also on other platforms, 81 percent of monthly newspaper readers engaged with the print product. In combination with newspapers’ multi-platform reach, that means that about 56 percent of the U.S. adult population reads print newspapers each month.

By contrast, only one-fifth (19 percent) of the monthly newspaper audience eschews print in favor of mobile or web access only.

The Nielsen analysts note that newspaper audiences have traditionally been more affluent and older than non-newspaper readers, but that the advent of digital media has brought a younger reader. As such, 38 percent of digital newspaper readers are in the 18 to 34 bracket, compared to 25 percent of the print newspaper audience. Nielsen analysts note that digital readers “represent an even more affluent and educated segment of readers.”

Overall, younger readers now account for a greater percentage of newspaper readers than previous decades, showing that the newspaper industry’s adoption of digital distribution is paying off. Millennials (21 to 34) make up 25 percent of the U.S. population and now represent 24 percent of the total monthly newspaper readership.

A Wall Street Journal article from 2015 noted that retail circulars account for about a fifth of newspaper advertising revenue. The article found that, due to the shrinking of newspaper readership and the inherent costs, retailers were looking to reduce circular use or more efficiently target them to readers, but digital alternatives (banner and search ads, e-mails, etc.) weren’t as effective in luring shoppers.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Will print circulars likely be retail’s primary consumer outreach method for many years ahead? What does digital advertising accomplish that print can’t and vice versa? How should stores balance digital versus print investments?

"Look for hybrid print/digital circulars to emerge this year."

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14 Comments on "Are reports on the death of newspapers greatly exaggerated?"

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Kim Garretson
11 months 7 days ago

Look for hybrid print/digital circulars to emerge this year. To date, the digital versions of print circulars have offered a terrible user experience. They have simply tried to copy the print versions with screens full of photos and copy, sometimes as PDFs, but always with the advertiser in charge by cramming as much stuff on the screen as possible. For 2017, think of the Pinterest user experience. The print circular will be the one-page front and back, and will exist mainly to lead readers online to create their own “pinboards” of the retailers’ promoted products (with their pinboards combining products from a variety of the retail advertisers).

With this personal shopper-like experience, each product can offer alerts on price drops, back-in-stock, newer models by the brands and more. Price comparison between retailers on specific products will be part of the experience as well.

Meaghan Brophy

It all depends on the retailer’s target audience. If their primary shoppers are under 25, circulars are not the best way to reach those consumers. However, if the audience is older circulars are more relevant. Retailers need to make multiple impressions on consumers through several different mediums for advertising to be effective. That means a blend of print and digital. It’s all about building name recognition and staying at the forefront of the consumer’s mind, especially for independents.

Lee Peterson

Boy, I question those numbers. The three Millennials I live with don’t even know what a newspaper is, let alone take the time to sit there and read one. We get the Sunday New York Times — which is still amazing — and I can’t think of one time (when not forced to) that they, or their friends, or their friends’ friends, have picked up a single section and looked at it. I’d stick with digital to reach them. Boomers — totally different story.

Ben Ball
Yeah, Lee. I questioned those numbers too. Of course, you deal in design and I deal in deception by decimal point — so I cruised over to Wikipedia and found some data from the Brookings Institute that shows newsprint circulation in the U.S. now reaches only 15 percent of the U.S. population versus the 35 percent it once reached (in the 1940s). So the “only down 2.5 percent from 2015” is off an already decimated base. The other thing that struck me as odd is the percent of readership reported by print-only (51 percent) vs. print + digital. If we generously use that statistic to double the Brookings Institute’s 15 percent for print reach (which is most likely a substantial double-counting) we still only get to 30 percent of the total U.S. population who sees any newspaper in either print or digital. Not quite the 56 percent cited extrapolated from the Nielsen Scarborough numbers. There was no data on this, but I strongly suspect that much of the digital readership is of selected articles which… Read more »
Herb Sorensen
I consider Ben’s comment to be a stark injection of truth about the newspaper business. I subscribe to 2 daily national print “news papers,” and another 3-4 for online access only — plus a couple blogs. My comment is only indirectly about their advertising, since I only see it incidentally, and am scanning their content with a few deep dives (read a “lengthy” article) daily. I note that in the recent election, at least one newspaper frankly stated their dedication to the losing party, and most of the others either actually did dedicate themselves to the losing party, hoping either readers would not notice, or would cheer them on. This public abdication of their ostensible role as NEWS papers, is just adding to their evolution to smallness. I’m saying this not to gripe about their coverage, but to point out what the public has progressively recognized, and reacted to. Calling themselves “news” papers is FALSE advertising, and that falsity is seriously impacting their circulations. From my limited knowledge of the newspaper business over the past… Read more »
Lyle Bunn (Ph.D. Hon)

Newspaper inserts are focused on generating store traffic. Do they support ongoing relationships and the development of new ones? If there are better ways of generating awareness, traffic and relationships, then print will continue to decline. I look forward to these market development dollars from brands going into improved in-store experiences, which will surely drive new visits through PR and word-of-mouth, but more importantly higher margin sales.

Ron Margulis

The transition to digital will differ by retail vertical. I’m frankly surprised there are consumer electronics retailers still printing circulars. The only reason must be they can’t find an equivalent number/quality of emails to distribute a digital version. For grocers, drug stores and DIY chains, there are several years of print ahead. A large section of those audiences still expect a circular every week and build their shopping lists accordingly. An interesting question is apparel. This may work itself out as department stores appealing to the masses are required to go more digital to compete with Amazon and the like.

Jasmine Glasheen
Jasmine Glasheen
Contributing Editor
11 months 7 days ago

Print advertising gives companies the opportunity to make a tangible impact on magazine readers. Computer ads can’t give readers a sensory experience. Admittedly, it has become quite the challenge to get advertisers hip to the unique opportunities presented by paper. But it’s so much fun to work with! Print magazines publish longer pieces with more elevated language, and print often has more in-depth content than online.

On the other hand, online content can be recirculated by readers within. This makes good online content self-marketing, as it can be recirculated and make impressions years after it is written. The impact of online content is more measurable, so advertisers are willing to fund it. Online content generally sticks to shorter sentences and is quippy enough to appeal to the masses.

Ralph Jacobson

This is primarily age/demographic-driven. I don’t think that’s a surprise. I think stores need to master the convergence of print into digital better than what has been done to date in order to appeal to those older folks, like me, who are far more comfortable in general with print versions.

Phil Rubin
11 months 7 days ago

Print circulars have about as much chance of being primary consumer media as the abacus does of replacing our smartphones. While print is still viable — especially direct mail — mass circulars are long done. Increasingly, smart retailers will not have to pay others (beyond USPS) to distribute their messages to their customers like they used to, and this should increase annually. The more retailers can directly engage with customers, the less they need to rely on media, especially traditional vehicles like ROP and circulars.

Dan Raftery

The data contain a spark of good news for marketers who recognize that mass marketing has diffused, but still exists. They are the ones quietly adding bench strength with individual focus and expertise in the various communication channels available right now. Often without the comfort of a measurable ROI.

Craig Sundstrom

Sadly, no … if anything, the decline of print newspapers — and for our purposes here, I think that’s really the only kind the fits the description — has been understated. A reading of the circulation statements required by the Post Office routinely shows declines of 50-75% from just a few years ago.

And I’m hardly impressed by surveys like the ones cited here, since by experience I know the question is usually framed as “did you happen to look at XXX paper in the past week or month?” It has little if anything to do with the kind of “reading” — i.e. daily subscription — that we’re used to.

As for digital — specifically mobile — if you think a postage-stamp-sized ad is going to communicate in the way a full, half or even quarter page ad does, please keep right on through to the classifieds (if the paper even carries them anymore), and check “bridges for sale.”

Thomas Becker
11 months 6 days ago

Digital circulars are much more customizable to each consumer and have the opportunity to cater to and inform their needs rather than push products on them in which they have no interest.

Dan Frechtling

The trends don’t present a bright picture for circulars or other print advertising many years ahead.

On the other hand, the data does make a case for the here and now. There is a buying opportunity with print newspapers. If you believed in it before, believe even more now.

Circulation in North America is down 2.4%, yet ad spend is down 7.2%. Whether is due to de-cluttering of newspapers as advertisers pull out, or lower CPMs, both signal buying opportunity.

Even if a shift from print to digital ad units is occurring, that signals a movement toward more cost-efficient, more measurable advertising.

Advertisers can reach more eyeballs per dollar, even in a declining circulation environment.

"Look for hybrid print/digital circulars to emerge this year."

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