This post presents some things that are a by-product of my research into “political fans” and regional public spheres. In each case I’ve wanted to find out how big the audience was for particular newspapers – whether they’re local papers or the national “capital P politics papers” favoured by the intensely politically engaged. I also wanted to discover if/how that had changed over time.
Something that gave me a more direct kick-along with this work was the discussion arising from Grog’s post about his dissastisfaction with the nature of political reporting in this Federal election campaign. A Herald Sun reporter, Ben Packham, came up with one of the range of predictable responses journos trot out when they’re criticised:
Most of the time this sort of moaning is coming from armchair Lefties who are upset their side is looking shakey and blaming journos
I always think that’s a peculiar line of reasoning – after all, a lot of Mr Packham’s paying customers will be digesting his work in their armchairs, and I would have thought their view would have counted for something. He redeemed himself by entering into discussion productively a little more later on. But over the fold I go through some reasons that there is no real room for complacency on the part of any journalist.
The main topic of discussion for the next few posts is the disappearing readership of Australian newspapers. Although Australian readership and circulations haven’t fallen off a cliff as they have in the US, parts of the UK market and elsewhere, the trend is unmistakable. Slowly but surely over a long period, they’ve by and large been losing readers.
The basis of everything I will do over a few posts (and probably a quickfire publication) on this topic is Roy Morgan’s research publications on average newspaper readership. So SOURCED FROM ROY MORGAN should be taken as read on all of this. Morgan collects these figures because measures of readership are vital to the functioning of the media market. Advertisers want reliable measures of readership primarily because raw circulation is so easily manipulated. Anyone who’s seen the snowdrifts of newspapers piled up in airport lounges, McDonalds stores, University refectories and elsewhere will realise that just because it’s printed and distributed, that doesn’t mean it’s read. Morgan are also good enough to make basic readership figures publicly available, and they’ve been publishing them for a decade now. I’ve simply grabbed and analysed their public results, and also mashed it together here and there with some ABS data on national and state populations.
Now, there’s a big caveat attached to all this. There are arguments, in particular from News Ltd, about the value of Morgan’s figures. I’m not going to rehearse them all here. The news industry – through Newspaper Works – has attempted to get up a rival readership measurement service. Since I’m using the Morgan figures, it should be obvious that I’m inclined to agree with Morgan’s line in this stoush – News Ltd and co are shooting the messenger. It’s not so much the methodology as the results they’re worried about, in my opinion. In any case, I don’t have much choice – there’s no one else who have done this sort of thing and published the results over such a long period. Nevertheless – caveat emptor.
To the results. The take away is that Australian newspaper readership has been generally declining over the last decade, and that that’s accelerated in the last five years. We can show that both in terms of raw numbers, percentage declines and “reach” a measure of what proportion of the adult population are reading a particular title. But don’t take my word for it – check the figures, both in this and subsequent posts.
This post will focus on raw readership figures and degrees of change in readership for national and metropolitan newspapers. They’re the ones with the most data available, and it seems like a good starting point. Subsequent posts will deal with regional variations, and issues like reach.
If you graph all the raw readership figures together, they look like spaghetti, so I’ll break them down a little. Here I’ll offer nationals, and then metros by state. Here’s the graphs for our national weekday and saturday newspapers.
Just at a glance, you’ll see that the AFR, The Weekend AFR and the Weekend Australian have declined in terms of their raw readership. The Australian has jumped around but looks on this score to be slightly better off than where us started back in 2000.
Here are Sydney’s papers.
The loss of readership here is pretty uniform – in particular the hit that both Sundays have taken to their readership should leap out at you.
Perhaps not so dramatic as Sydney in terms of uniform decline, but it’s visible here that recent years have been unkind to the Herald Sun’s Monday-Friday and Saturday editions. The Age and Sunday Age trace a gentle up and down curve; the weekday Age is falling slowly but steadily. I’ll jam some other capitals together for ease of presentation here.
Brisbane and Adelaide, the two News Ltd “one-team towns” are next:
The Brisbane Sunday Mail and Saturday edition of the Courier-Mail have had some mild upswings in readership before ending up down overall. (I wouldn’t mind plotting the Sunday Mail’s against the finals positions of Queensland NRL teams). The Courier-Mail’s been pretty steady (without, of course, growing its readership.) The Adelaide papers are all down.
Canberra and Hobart are together for their comparable sizes – helps with the scale.
All down – in particular the Canberra Times has had a shocker of a decade across all editions. It stands out, as we’ll see in more detail in subsequent posts, as the one true basket-case in Australian newspaper publishing.
Perth on its lonesome:
Both editions of the West Australian and the Sunday Times have had significant falls in readership.
Raw numbers are all very well – but let’s measure the changes more precisely in terms of percentages. That way we can put newspapers of different readership sizes alongside each other a little more easily. Here’s a graph showing the percentage change in readership for all of those national and metropolitan papers between 2000 and 2009.
You’ll see most readerships falling, and some big, 20%+ falls in readerships for newspapers like the Canberra Times, the Sun Herald, and the Adelaide Advertiser. There are a few holding or going up, where the stand-outs are a few Melbourne papers and the Australian.
But check this out as an example of the perils of drawing straight lines. Mostly the percentasge changes are a fair indication, but when you look at how the Australian has swung around in terms of readership, picking one year or another to draw a line from can seem a little arbitrary. Taking a bead from 2000-2001 or 2005 could be slightly misleading in terms of what’s been happening long-term.
To get a better idea of the long-term trend, I went for an average of changes in circulation for individual papers over the periods in question. So here is the average annual percentage change in readership for the same papers between 2000 and 2009. That is, the average for each paper of all their recorded annual changes in circulation.
A bit of a different story, and no unmixed joy for any newspaper. Remember, these represent the average amount percentage of readers lost or gained by each newspaper over the last decade. Advertising buyers no doubt drill down into this in a more sophisticated way, and we’ll do more with this data in succeeding posts, but on the whole, Australia’s not exempt from the long-term trend of newspapers’ most precious resource – reading eyeballs – is disappearing elsewhere. Why would they be so cagey, then, about customer feedback? And what should those of us who value the role of newspapers think about this?
More later this week. In particular, the issue of reach – that is these readership figures as a proportion of the population – will complicate things slightly.
For those who are interested, I’ve included this .xls sheet containing the tabled data I drew down from the Morgan press releases. Lots of people in the industry probably have this kind of thing for their own use, but no one as far as I know makes it publicly available – think of this as your taxes at work Knock yourself out playing with it. Oh and I’m a bit of a n00b when it comes to effective data presentation and writing all this up (I’m sure Possum is going to kill me for using Numbers ) Feedback – including brickbats – welcome.