It's time to retire newspaper circulation data in favor of Web analytics – But which ones?

This is part one in a two-part series on Web analytics and the future of news

Newspaper circulation numbers are taken as report cards for survival. When worse than expected for too long, these numbers forewarn of future layoffs and corporate restructuring – and at the very worst, the death of a newspaper.

But we’re putting our emphasis, energy, and nostalgia in the wrong place. The future is in Web analytics, but this extends beyond just knowing about page views, unique users, and visits.

“If newspapers have any chance of making it in an online and social media world with an ad based model, we’ve got to see much more living and dying by analytics,” said Dana Chinn, a lecturer at the USC Annenberg School of Communication.

Nonetheless, a print mentality dominates our current understanding of the media landscape.

Consider, as an example of the formidable significance circulation numbers have in our industry, a June 15, 2009 AP story about the troubles facing the Boston Globe:

“In the most recent report from the Audit Bureau of Circulations, the Globe’s average weekday circulation dropped nearly 14 percent to 302,638 from the previous year. Sunday circulation was down more than 11 percent at 466,665.”

Or, for instance, the February 27, 2009 LA Times article about the death of the Rocky Mountain News, “The paper’s weekday circulation was 210,000; as recently as 2000, it boasted a circulation of 446,000.” Reporter Nicolas Riccardi used the figures like we all seem to do: as a grim snapshot of decline.

The State of the News Media 2009 report gives this grim picture:

“Losses continued and, in fact, accelerated to 4.6% daily and 4.8% Sunday, in the six months ending September 30, 2008, compared to the same period a year earlier…. More papers plan to retreat geographically and put less money into selling new subscriptions in 2009. 

“The industry also continues to struggle to find a metric for total print and online readership that will be meaningful to advertisers.  The online standard – unique monthly visitors – does not compare in frequency or intensity of attention to average daily print circulation.”

But there is an increasing recognition even among the advertising side of the industry that circulation is just a number among many other numbers.

“There are a lot of new measures. It’s not anymore just circulation, it’s not just readership,” said Roberta Garfinkle, the director of print strategy at Target Cast tcm, which offers strategic communication advice for brands. “It’s really who is seeing my ad when are they seeing it and what are they doing about it.”

The State of the News Media’s suggestion that there is an industry “online standard” for measurements is deeply flawed and underscores how much the news industry has to gain from Web analytics. But analytics are not simple and are different for each paper.

Unlike with circulation, there is no way to accurately measure markets against each other or newspapers against each other online. There are two problems: the fuzziness of the Web numbers themselves and the unique variations and development on each website that make it important to customize analytics to that particular newspaper.

“In a print mode, circulation was a good apples to apples comparison. In an online world, you can use uniques, which is a bad number, visits, which is an ok number, page views, [which] can be gamed. It really depends on your end goal,” said Alan Segal, the Atlanta Journal Constitution’s Director of Audience Development.

Depending on the combination of blogs, video, audio, shovelware and other forms of content on a news site, newspapers need to realize that each Web metric they generate is highly contextual to the product they’ve created. And they need to leverage that information with advertisers.

As Alex Langshur, president of the Web Analytics Association, explained, “It’s likely that each outlet will become more differentiated from the others based on the resources that it applies, which then creates different measures for success.”

But as I will explain in the next article on this topic, understanding metrics is incredibly difficult and contingent for each news organization.

We’ll parse through what some of these terms: page views, unique visitors, visits actually mean – and we’ll look at why the numbers from the major auditing companies from comScore to Nielsen to Google Analytics need to be taken with careful consideration. Finally, we’ll look at how news businesses actually can marshal this complicated mess into something that can be used to their advantage.

About Nikki Usher

Nikki Usher is a doctoral student at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California.


  1. says:

    I agree. Analytics are going to be huge. Almost everything is done online these days. I used to purchase the NY Post every day and now just read the NY papers online at the office. The Post and the Daily News are competing with pagerank 5-6 positions which should indeed be higher.

  2. i do agree that web analytics is going to be huge. one important trend to look out for is to see how social bookmarking is going to influence the overall schematics of things.