Subscribers vs Readers

by Jason Preston on April 24, 2008

New York Times reader numbersScarborough Research recently released its 2008 study of newspaper audience ratings. You can find a downloadable PDF copy here, if that floats your boat.

It’s really stunning to look at the difference between the print readership and online readership at most of the newspapers in this report. Up top here I’ve posted the numbers for the New York Times, arguably the paper with the biggest web presence of any news organization.

Their numbers are completely unrepresentative of the industry at large – it may be only 10% of their market, but 1.5 million readers is nothing to scoff at. It’s virtually half their print readership. I think this is because the NYT has done such a good job of positioning themselves online as the destination for national news in the US.

Here are a some numbers from a few other newspapers:

Seattle PI / Times reader numbers

Houston Chronicle reader numbers

Chicago Tribune reader numbers

LA Times reader numbers

Here the story is quite different. Especially in Chicago and Los Angeles, where the print readership is four times the size of their web readership. This is, to say the least, problematic.

In a time when the print newspaper seems to be on its way out the door (the current prediction, I believe, is that the last paper edition will go out in 2040), it’s concerning that newspapers in such major markets have the low penetration that they do.

It may sound like beating a dead horse (thump thump), but I suspect that the web audiences for each of these newspapers is actually boosted quite a bit by their national web audience (this study looks only at local readers). The problem is that for many newspapers, fighting to maintain a national audience—and I’m looking at you, Los Angeles Times—is not a good business strategy going forward.

There is only a market for, and dare I say a need for, a very limited amount of national coverage. Yes, variety in opinion and coverage is necessary and good, but I don’t see many people wanting to read more than a couple accounts of a national story.

(Columnists are a different story entirely. There is a nearly bottomless demand for opinion)

Can you guess where I’m headed? That’s right – local coverage will serve these newspapers well. With the advent of the internet, the notion of the subscriber has temporarily jumped out of the picture, replaced with the hit, the page view, and other abominable terms devoid of any loyalty or emphasis on repeat customers.

This is one of the reasons I’m such a huge fan of RSS (by the way, you should subscribe to my feed if you haven’t yet): because it encourages loyalty and the creation of a relationship with the people who are reading your content.

And that kind of engagement is a major factor in why print newspapers and magazines can charge the kinds of premiums for ad content that just aren’t possible online yet.

In short, a subscriber is infinitely more valuable than a reader, because a subscriber is coming back tomorrow.