Why it’s dangerous to compare print figures to website stats

Dan Thornton, Community Marketing Manager at Bauer Media, reposting from his blog, TheWayoftheWeb.

Although hardly newspaper/print apologists, both John Duncan and Martin Langeveld have posted interesting articles trying to compare the print/online split in newspaper readership in number terms. Duncan comes in with online having 17% of page impressions on Inksniffer using the Guardian as a case study, while Langeveld posts that only 3% of newspaper reading happens online.

While I totally agree that it’s easy to overestimate the online figures in comparison to print products, and both articles are good reality checks, I have to say that I think comparing print and online readerships directly in this way is equivalent to comparing the number of people who drive cars with the number of people with vowels in their name.

And touting the eventual figures is very dangerous.

For starters, the readership of print titles rests on research figures for average shared readership of titles. For instance, the metrics John Duncan quotes are:

From 2007:

Average daily UK uniques for Guardian website: 270576 (after discounting overseas readers etc).

Average UK sales of Guardian/Observer: 310788

But then the UK sales figures is multiplied by 3 to take into account shared readership, becoming 932,364, on figures available by the Guardian.

Meanwhile Langeveld refers to an engagement study from the Newspaper Association of America conducted in February, 2006, based on 4594 respondents to a survey.

Now shared readership definitely happens, and without being able to actually see what people do, rather than what they claim, it’s impossible to be totally accurate.

But…

If you’re taking shared readership of print products into account, then surely you’d also need to factor in people reading newspaper website content without ever being logged as a visitor to the site?

That includes people blocking cookies, people using RSS, people reading reposts of newspaper content (Great example of the spread of multimedia news by Martin Belam by the way), people reading content via aggregation sites and site scrapers etc, etc.

And by the time you’ve taken into account all the vagaries of print readership figures (which aren’t a bad guide to something so difficult to measure), and then taken into account the vagaries of online measurement (Less inaccurate, but still pretty fairly vague), and using data and research from 2+ years ago (But that’s probably the most recent readily available) it starts to be apparent that quoting a an exact figure is pretty irrelevant – especially when some people will undoubtedly take it as gospel.

After all, two years ago, Facebook didn’t have 200 million users, Twitter had just launched, there was no iPhone, there was less broadband penetration in the UK, there hadn’t been events like earthquakes or Mumbai to highlight realtime information, etc, etc.

And there’s a big elephant in the news room: Whoever said that print newspaper readers were guaranteed to only be getting their online news from newspapers?

I can get digital news on my mobile or my PC, via text,audio or video, and via social networks, blogs, websites, link aggregators, RSS, podcasts, videocasts, and from global sources. Whether or not print titles are only seeing a small percentage of their print readership visiting them online is less relevant, than how many of those readers are getting news content online from any source.

So what can you do?

When it comes to looking at the situation now and for the future, the numbers are far less important than looking at data trends. I’d much rather base a theory or business strategy on a few years of data showing a rise in one area and a fall in another. The numbers are rough guides to point towards when the trends are in the same area, but that’s all.

Just to reiterate, I don’t want to criticise John and Martin for doing what is a useful, if flawed, exercise to highlight caution in assuming that online readership is bigger than it really is, or that print readership is smaller than you might think. As I tried to comment on the Nieman Labs site (sadly it vanished into cyberspace after I submitted it), it’s the way the information is being presented that worries me.

7 thoughts on “Why it’s dangerous to compare print figures to website stats

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  4. John Mecklin

    I haven’t gone in and parsed all the numbers relating to online vs. print readership. But the tendency of online enthusiasts to question the pass-along rates for daily newspapers is amusing to me.

    The pass-along rate isn’t some number ginned out of the air. It is the result of hundreds and hundreds of surveys over many, many (many!) years. Scarbrough, Media Audit — you pick the survey entity, and the results pretty much always show a pass-along rate of between 2 and 3 readers for a daily newspaper. And how do these surveys show this? Let’s consider the Media Audit, which takes a random sample representative of a metropolitan area and then asks (among hundreds of demographic and behavioral questions) each person in that sample whether he or she has read a particular publication within the last day, week, month. Because the sample is a random sample, the answers to those reading behavior questions can be generalized to the metro area (within the confidence range of the survey, of course). And when you do that, lo and behold, you come up with somewhere between 2 and 3 readers for every newspaper that is printed/circulated. The comment on pass-along rates in this post — “without being able to actually see what people do, rather than what they claim, it’s impossible to be totally accurate” — is simply untrue. When you have hundreds of surveys over decades, all with reasonable confidence intervals, showing the same thing, then you can bet the house that what they show is “totally accurate.”

    Reply
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