Advertisers Are Leaving Newspapers; Readers Aren’t

July 14, 2008

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: the crumbling of the newspaper industry isn’t because people have stopped reading the newspaper. Rather, it’s because advertisers are finding more options on the Web, and the online revenue that newspapers do get isn’t nearly enough to replace the lost revenue from lucrative print ads, especially classified. True, circulation has been in a long, slow decline for 30 years, but that’s nothing compared to the way ad dollars have fallen off the cliff in the past three years.

Now comes some objective information to back me up, in the form of a new study from the Readership Institute. Readership has held pretty steady since 2006, and people who do read the newspaper pick it up an average of five days a week. On weekdays, those who read the paper spend an average of 27 minutes with it — again, unchanged since 2006. Why aren’t these numbers worse, given the unending tide of bad news from the industry?

“The short answer is that reading customers aren’t deserting newspapers at anything approaching the rate that advertising customers are,” institute managing director Mary Nesbitt writes in the report. “That is no consolation for newspaper company employees who are losing their jobs.”

As you might expect, younger people have lower readership rates than their elders. That poses a long-term problem, as Nesbitt notes: “Low-reading groups will continue to take their low-reading habits with them as they age. The very youngest adults have media and news habits very different from their parents.”

This is a small ray of sunshine in a very dark landscape. But I still wouldn’t be buying any newspaper company stock, even at the fire-sale prices they’re trading for these days. Quite frankly, nobody in the newspaper business has figured out a long-term strategy to stop the slide. If anyone had, they’d be on the lecture circuit charging publishers a million dollars a pop — and the publishers would gladly pay.