Reach vs. revenue, smiles vs. sadness: a look at the latest newspaper numbers

Last week, after a few months of subscribing to the print version of The Herald, my wife decided to cancel it (despite my initial reservations given we have access to the internet, I actually quite enjoyed reading the paper version). With the circulation declines seen in recent years, this certainly wouldn’t have been an unusual conversation for those in the subscriptions department, but she said they sounded quite sad when she told them the news. And while there are a few areas of positivity in Nielsen’s latest readership numbers, putting a smiling man on the first page of the report might have been overly optimistic. 

As Nielsen’s study of the agency bubble showed last year, Auckland and Wellington are not New Zealand. And a big chunk of the population still likes a bit of ink on paper. Overall, the figures show 2.06 million New Zealanders aged 15+ read the daily and Sunday newspapers each week, although that was down by just over one percent from the previous quarter in 2014 and down by around five percent year on year. 

All metropolitan, all weeklies, all regionals, all communities and all lift-outs were down year on year. And The Otago Daily Times, which has just lost its editor Murray Kirkness after he was named as Tim Murphy’s replacement at The Herald, had the smallest readership drop of any of the major papers (in this environment, stagnation is the new growth). 

One semi-bright spot in print was for regional newspapers. “Outside the four main centres, newspaper readership of 783,000 people is unchanged from the previous survey,” said Brian Hill, the chief executive of industry body News Works NZ in a release. “This demonstrates that the relevance of regional daily papers to their local communities is powerful and enduring.” 

In saying that, readership is down from 850,000 the previous year. So the regions aren’t immune from trends being seen around the world. 

Readership of rural newspapers were also solid, and in some cases growing. 

Hill also focused on the quality of the audience, with readership especially strong among higher income people who have above-average spending power. 

“The survey reaffirms that newspaper readers tend to be affluent, are more likely to have high disposable incomes and own property. More than 340,000 daily/Sunday newspaper readers are shown by the survey to own investment properties or holiday homes.” 

Of course, newspapers aren’t just papers anymore. And there’s been plenty of action in the publishing arena recently trying to deal with that, with Fairfax currently smashing up its newsroom in an effort to rebuild it for the digital era and NZME bringing its various strands together and getting set to move to a one newsroom model by adding Newstalk ZB in to the mix. 

Hill also talked up the increasing reach of newspaper brands in its release. 

“The Fairfax website stuff.co.nz and nzherald.co.nz are the country’s top news websites and when combined with odt.co.nz and the newspaper publishers’ regional websites, the monthly audience exceeds two million. The publishers are also experiencing rapid growth in audiences accessing mobile platforms.” 

Despite the fact that many (at least many in the agency bubble) use mobile apps to access news sites, Nielsen doesn’t yet count this as part of the total digital audience, although it says most app users are also users of the news websites so it’s unlikely to be a huge added audience. 

Nielsen’s media trends report (which covers a range of media and is available for purchase here) shows how newspaper readership has changed since 2009. 

While overall weekly reach of newspapers has increased, the major issue is that free online readership is growing at the expense of subscription revenue. Print ads and circulation (which is also down across the board year-on-year for all the major daily and weekly papers) still make up the bulk of revenue for news publishers, and while digital advertising is growing quickly, it’s from a small base and, as the oft-used phrase goes the digital dimes are not enough to make up for the loss of analog dollars.

Added to that, unlike some legacy news brands overseas, none of the major newspapers in this market are getting digital subscription revenue (NBR is the exception, although business media is a different kettle of fish than mainstream news).  

In an interesting piece on NBR, former Fairfax staffer Tim Hunter wrote that Fairfax was still a profitable company, although that’s certainly on a downward trend. But, despite its move up the ranks of the most-visited sites in recent months, its ‘eggs in one basket’ digital strategy differs from that taken by most newspaper brands, which have developed digital versions of their print mastheads. He hoped trying to become the most-visited free news site in the country would prove to be a successful strategy. But he wished the company had chosen its flagship brand with more care.

“‘Stuff’ is not a great rallying cry for 21st century journalism.” 

As Mary Meeker’s latest internet trends report showed, newspapers’ share of ad spend relative to attention minutes is still hugely over-indexed in the US. The opposite is true of mobile. But the gap is closing and good chunk of advertising cash is starting to head that way (and at the moment Facebook is claiming most of it). 

As far as advertising goes, newspapers have been largely been used an activation medium; as a place for brands (and particularly retailers) to offer readers their current deals. And as more of that ad activation spend goes to digital channels—and as more advertisers demand accountability, something that print titles and other ‘traditional’ media channels find harder to offer—academic Clay Shirky believes there is more pain for printed newspapers to come.

As he says: “Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism.” 

Some others feel there’s another revenue cliff coming for print as the younger generation who grew up without it gets their news—and their ads—in different ways. While trust is a big part of the equation for many legacy news brands, a recent survey by Edelman showed search engines took over from traditional news as the most trusted source of news and information for the first time (and a massive 72 percent of 18-35s saw Google as their most trusted news source, even though it doesn’t actually produce news). Many also get their news through social media channels, and with so many international news sites clamouring for attention, you can add that to the challenges currently faced by local publishers. 

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