Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Changing newspaper metrics - maybe there's hope

There's a lot of talk lately about trying to change the metric in selling newspapers to advertisers -- from circulation to readership. As the Wall Street Journal explained it Monday in its excellent article on declining circulation, "Readership is how many readers view each copy of the newspaper -- a number that is typically two to four per copy."

The changing sales pitch is summed up well by Don Stinson, Gannett's senior vice president of marketing for newspapers: "Whether the person pays for the newspaper or got it from somebody else isn't particularly relevant. It's whether they read it."

Jay Rosen at PressThink has a good summation of the challenge facing newspapers, however:
If the industry's strategy is to not to conceal any longer with gimmicks and giveaways the growing fall off in sales, but to impress upon advertisers the good quality of the paying readers who are left, then success depends on advertisers who are not only willing to migrate from one pricing logic to another, but willing to overlook all the years when they were, in effect, charged for phantom readers.
All of which makes me remember a story out of KYW radio in Philadelphia about 30 years ago, a time when the Westinghouse station and others in New York and Los Angeles had gone all-news and were struggling to convince advertisers. As a newbie to the newsroom, I was assigned to spend a day with one of the salesmen trolling accounts along the Main Line. He told me this, perhaps apocryphal, story, but one that might serve to put some hope into newspapering:

An enterprising salesman, it seems, was trying to persuade one of the area's largest car dealers to advertise on KYW. These were the days when WIP was king and advertisers usually bought on "quarter-hour" ratings. The idea was that the more "quarter hours" a station had in the books, the longer its listeners were listening to it. This was a throwback to the days of radio theater and concerts. Of course, by the 1960s, Top 40 had emerged and radio was totally different. But it was still selling on quarter-hour.

KYW needed to change that. It knew people only tuned in for a few minutes to get the top news -- thus the Group W all-news slogan: "You give us 22 minutes, we'll give you the world." KYW, in other words, was selling "churn," or as it's known in the radio buinsess, "cume," for cumulative number of listeners. This enterprising salesman, having been rebuffed by the car dealer yet another time, hit upon an idea, the story goes. He bet the dealer $20 -- tomorrow morning, let's go into your repair shop at 8 a.m., as the cars are coming in and before they go up on the lift. Let's turn on their radios and see where they're set. It was in a way a sucker's bet, of course, because during rush hour this salesmen knew a fair proportion were tuning in for the headlines at least briefly, and when they pulled into the car dealer's they probably hadn't had time to turn the radio to their favorite music station.

Sure enough, the next morning they went through those cars and at least half the radios were on KYW. The dealer bought airtime -- and once a large car dealer makes that move it's like leading lemmings to the sea -- the green ink flowed and the rest is history -- all-news radio stations became big profit centers.

Newspapers find themselves in the opposite position: They're trying to change the rules, too, but back to "quarter hour" by saying the quality (and length) of our readership is more important.

But if KYW could so decisively turn the metrics in its favor with a creative bold stroke, then newspaper people ought to be able to think of something similar to make their case. Find out where all those valued readers are sharing their papers. Can we figure out a way to "show" that to advertisers? Perhaps the story will stir those juices and give us some hope.

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