The truth about newspapers

You may be surprised

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Every year, we have our newspapers audited by an outside company to certify our circulation – how many papers we print and distribute. It is quite expensive to have this done, but advertisers – especially national advertisers such as a Fry’s or a Best Buy – want to verify you are reaching the audiences you say you do.

The audit is a telephone survey conducted by a company in St. Louis in which the poll people call until they have successfully interviewed 300 random households in our market.

When they do the audit, we also commission a readership study. Knowing more about our readers not only helps us select what to write about, but it also helps us measure how we are doing over time. So, when we got the results back from our audit of 2010, I decided to compare our numbers for this year against our earliest audit in 2004.

That seven-year span I thought could be interesting for a couple reasons, not the least of which is that during that time the Internet and social media have exploded and we have also had a near depression.

Surely our numbers in many categories should have plummeted. After all, no one reads newspapers anymore, “they” say. But the numbers tell a different story. Let’s look through a couple of the main readership questions over time.

• Do you regularly receive your newspaper? In 2004, 96.5 percent said yes. In 2010, the number was 96.9 percent.

• Do you frequently purchase goods or services from ads in the paper? In 2004, 79.7 percent said yes. In 2010, it was 75.1 percent.

With our four weekly newspapers, we distribute 73,500 newspapers and reach about 125,000-plus readers every week. So that 79.7 percent equates to about 94,000 people in North Fulton/ South Forsyth buying from local businesses – frequently – from the advertising in our papers.

In 2004, 78 percent of our readers were between the ages of 25 and 54. In 2010, the number was 77 percent.

That is, roughly three out of every four readers are in their greatest earning years or close to it.

The next questions are: A. How much money do our readers earn?; and B. Has that changed?

The answer is: A. “A lot;” and B. “No,” despite the national economy, it has not changed much. There is a reason that here in the middle of this economy you still see national retailers moving in. Von Maur at Northpoint Mall for example had its grand opening in November, and a new Walmart Market in the middle of Alpharetta will be opening next year.

In 2004, 54 percent of our readers had a family income greater than $100,000. In 2010, that number increased to 61 percent.

Of note, in 2010, 33 percent of Appen Newspaper readers’ family income was more than $150,000. I found those numbers both surprising and staggering. Very few markets in this country can match numbers like ours. And honestly, I don’t think there is a local or regional Internet site or social media player that can come within miles of accessing those kind of local numbers like our newspapers do.

Our readers were asked, “What media has influenced you to make a purchase in the last 90 days?” Again, many of you may be surprised. Seventy-five percent of respondents cited the local newspaper. That was followed by 63 percent direct mail, 30 percent radio, 25 percent Facebook (this was surprising), 21 percent cable, 19 percent billboards and 2 percent Twitter.

Here are a few others I found interesting. The question to Appen readers was “are you going to buy a new or used car in the next 12 months?” In 2004, 33 percent said yes. In 2008, after the economy was tanking, 17 percent said yes, but in 2010 that number grew back to 39 percent – a statistic that is consistent to auto sales in general nationwide in the last year or so. Of note, when asked what media would you use to help make your next auto or truck purchase, 51 percent cited the local newspaper, followed by 20 percent Internet, 16 percent TV and 13 percent radio.

So, the good news to me was that the numbers strongly suggest our newspaper is not significantly hurt by the Internet or social media. Our readership has remained relatively constant.

People still intensely read the local newspaper despite what all the social media and digital sales folks would like for you to believe. The “why” involved in the resilience of local newspapers is another column I think. I have some ideas. But I will offer a few thoughts from a letter to the editor in the Raleigh News and Observer by one of their delivery people:

“Many people say the newspaper business is all but extinct – the dinosaur of media. Whoever said that has not met my customers.

Many cannot start the day without their paper. In this day of instant news, actually holding the paper in their hands is still a way of life, a comfort, an old friend. It could be nostalgia, but whatever the cause (of newspapers’ surprising resilience) I no longer question its importance.”

(If you would like to see the full results of the 2010 readership survey you can go to www.NorthFulton.com and click on “Advertise” in the middle of the top of the home page then click on “Readership Study”)

Alpharetta. Ga.