When I need a good chuckle, I read a Nancy Conway column. You know Salt Lake Tribune Editor Nancy Conway, don’t you? She’s the local face of Dean Singleton, the Trib’s publisher. Singleton, a wunderkind in the newspaper business, builder of a mega-million-dollar empire of newspapers after a humble start at just one small newspaper, is seldom seen in these parts. I’m no fan of the Singleton style of absentee ownership, but to his credit, I must remind myself that I’m still stuck at one newspaper. To my own credit, I don’t need Nancy Conway to talk nonsense for me. I do that for myself.
I was reading the March 31 Sunday Trib when I came across a Conway column about measuring online viewers—or users—at daily newspapers. The headline, “Keeping the record straight on readership” caused me to guffaw, spitting chunks of my feta-cheese omelet. It wasn’t the first time I’d read an article of this nature in the Trib—it’s a ritual of daily newspapers to provide self-serving explanations of readership figures, particularly when they’ve been beaten by a competitor. Which would be well and fine if they didn’t spend so much time fudging their own numbers in the first place.
Just so you know, and for full disclosure, anyone reading this is welcome to view or have any readership data on City Weekly—we’ll provide our circulation audits, reports from The Media Audit, print and online rate cards, and internal data about our online usage and paper readership. Or, you can be an amateur sleuth and go to Alexa.com if you believe that their wildly fluctuating, estimated figures are actually of some value. For a more accurate external glance at our online viewership, go to QuantCast.com, where City Weekly is registered and to which we connect via one of those magical widgets so we can better know who is going where on our pages and for how long.
We care about that, but it’s not where we hang our hat. We know only one thing about readership, whether it be online or in print: numbers and rankings don’t mean squat when it comes to understanding what readers want, and those numbers mean even less if readers are not doing business with our advertisers.
Which is why I laughed at Conway’s column, whereby she expected me, as a reader, to shriek with amazement at the great big numbers that she was casting about like mystical vapors. Do I care if the Trib’s website has a zillion hits and a trillion unique views and a billion clicks? No. Do most advertisers? No. I don’t even care that 2 billion of those hits come from the loyal—but small—community of persons who post story comments all day, every day. But newspapers are used to measuring themselves against one another, and it meant a lot to Conway to say her numbers were special—or as good as those of the Deseret News, which measures readership and money-making opportunity much differently.
Only those living in dark caverns can suggest that the D-News (once my preferred morning read) is any longer a decent community newspaper. Barring its coverage of prep sports and having Brad Rock and a couple other notables aboard, it simply is not. However, it’s an online phenomenon—except for the parts you have to read, that is. Mormonism is a worldwide brand, the Internet knows no borders, and the D-News (plus KSL.com) is there to capitalize on that. Better, they do so without the hand-wringing that is part and parcel with the old guard, brick & mortar (dinosaur) mentality of Conway and her brand of readership legerdemain.
For example, in the good old days, a daily newspaper was able to trick merchants into buying ever-higher-priced ads based on supposedly ever-higher readership. When daily readership topped out, those same newspapers raised prices anyway. When daily readership began to wane, the industry began measuring readership the same way a Chicago politician measures votes—it created them. Was it fair that merchants were paying for a stable circulation when that circulation included bundles of newspapers delivered to schools or hotels? Nope. Dailies counted them as part of their circulation-based pricing anyway. Local merchants unfairly paid the freight of a system that capitalized on national ad rates based on circulation figures. Today, daily newspapers often count rising online subscribers in the same category of declining print subscribers in order to keep that circulation number stable. Do they charge less for the ads in the newspaper that prints fewer copies than before, though? Does the local restaurant owner benefit from the growing online readership in, say, Ontario, Canada?
Conway works for MediaOne of Utah. A few years back, MediaOne claimed that one of its products was printing 65,000 copies a week. Later, MediaOne also pointed to an external audit to support those circulation and readership numbers. When we found that the publication’s circulation-audit numbers didn’t match the numbers provided to readers and merchants, MediaOne didn’t want to talk to our reporter. They did, at least, quit running the audit logo in their product.
Which explains why a bit of feta came to land on Conway’s Pinocchio nose that Sunday morning. She had written, “We are grateful to our readers—you—in whose name this news organization does everything it does. We’ll do our best to get you an accurate report. We will try to keep the record straight.” Ha.
The operative word here is “try,” and I do give Conway bona fides for “trying.”
But trying to explain the relevance of online readership within the old frame of newspaper numbers—the more readers, the better; the more readers, the more dollars—is nonsense. And laughable.