About those new Star readers

Dateline: Sat 16 Feb 2008

Last Sunday, Star publisher Barbara Henry co-opted exec editor Dennis Ryerson's column space to gush about her good news: 115,000 new readers gained in the past year, for the daily and Sunday papers.

Goodness knows, I want newspapers to succeed, and new readers are always to be celebrated.

But the numbers can be deliberately misleading.

Years ago, newspapers boasted of circulation. When that got a little too dicey, they looked at penetration: what percentage of households were they "penetrating" or reaching in their market? Gannett has chosen to downplay both those figures and instead talks of readers -- a cooked-up magical figure which counts how many people are in a household, for instance, or how many people will come "into contact" with the paper on any given day. So if a news company is giving away 1,000 papers to local schools and colleges, it can boost its "readership" many times over.

When I wrote for the paper, I occasionally gave public talks. I always spoke about the success of the newspaper, which used to mean, in terms of numbers, circulation and penetration -- until Gannett came to town. In prepping for a talk once, I called Henry's office to get current figures. I was advised they were no longer relevant. Only readers counted.

When Henry claims 115,000 new readers, she talks about the array of "new products," especially community newspapers. (Carmel Star, Fishers Star, Greenwood Star, etc.) No doubt there are figures, somewhere in the bowels of the Star, to indicate that all those thin little community papers are floating around in multiple hands, at doctors' offices, high school gyms, wherever. And since the Star is relentless in trying to bargain-sell its papers to new subscribers, with serial dialing, I am sure some of those sales are being multiplied by members of the household to equate to new readers.

For the record, the Star's circulation, as of 2006, the last time the paper was audited by the national Audit of Bureau Circulations, is 348,133 Sunday; 258,947 daily average, and 231,985 Saturday. I was pleased that a Star boss provided those figures. It proves not everyone in management is hyping.

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