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American Journalism Review
Well, At Least They Like The Ads  | American Journalism Review
From AJR,   June 1997

Well, At Least They Like The Ads   

A new survey shows newspaper readers think more highly of the advertising than the news coverage.

By John Morton
John Morton (, a former newspaper reporter, is president of a consulting firm that analyzes newspapers and other media properties.     

Surveys exploring how people get news and other information from the media often merely confirm the obvious. A new study paid for by the newspaper industry, though, reached an unexpected conclusion: Consumers are a lot happier with the advertising they see in newspapers than they are with the news coverage.

Indeed, the favorable response to newspaper advertising was so pervasive that the only advertising categories in which newspapers were bested by television and magazines had to do with such soft parameters as use of color, attractiveness of presentation and the like, and even in these areas newspapers scored well.

When it came to hard categories like advertisements for automobiles, retail stores, clothing, groceries, jobs, entertainment and sporting events, newspaper advertising was preferred, often by wide margins, over all other media, including radio and direct mail. Direct mail failed to beat out newspapers in any category.

The survey's results help explain why newspapers continue to pull in high advertising revenue and high profits – last year the newspaper operations of publicly reporting companies kept more than sixteen cents of every dollar they took in. And the results also may explain why newspapers continue to have trouble holding on to their circulation.

The survey, which was conducted by Clark, Martire & Bartolomeo, Inc., for the Newspaper Association of America and ASNE, included more than 3,000 telephone interviews of adults 18 or older and follow-up questionnaires to 2,250 for whom mailing addresses were available. A large part of the focus was on what respondents expected from the media and how well they thought each type of media delivered.

Respondents identified the most important news category as weather, followed closely by local news, information that helps local communities deal with problems, investigation of important issues, and world and national news. To give some idea of the differences between categories (the methodology of the scoring is too complicated to go into here), opinion and analysis and sports scores and statistics were viewed as about half as important as local news.

Newspapers easily outscored television in performance ratings for most news categories, especially local news, but lost to television by relatively small margins on professional sports and world and national news and, by sizable margins, on weather, science and technology, and health and fitness.

If consumers rate newspapers so highly when it comes to advertising, why the dissatisfaction with news coverage? The answer lies in the gap between what consumers expect from news coverage and what they believe is delivered.

For example, 84 percent of respondents thought local news coverage was of great importance, but only 64 percent rated local newspapers' coverage as a strong point in comparison to local television stations, and only 38 percent described newspapers as their primary source of local news.

Another area of concern for newspapers, according to the survey results, is the relative weakness of weekday circulation. Only 45 percent of weekday newspaper readers would miss the paper "a great deal" if it were not available, compared with 62 percent of Sunday newspaper readers (56 percent of viewers of local television news programs would miss them a great deal). And compared with survey results of 20 years ago, newspaper readership is down for all education levels by a significant amount.

The credibility problem that has so plagued the news media of late is a real problem for all types of media, according to the survey. But at least newspapers came off better than local television in believability (57 percent of respondents rate newspapers very good or excellent, compared with 47 percent for television), accuracy (56 percent to 50 percent) and fairness (47 percent to 41 percent).

And there was other good news for newspapers. Their readers tend to be better educated and better off than the average television-news watcher, and weekday papers still reach about six out of 10 adults (local television news reaches seven out of 10, and seven out of 10 adults on Sunday).

Perhaps the main lesson that newspapers should take from all of this is that now is the time, with advertising and profits strong, to concentrate on improving local coverage and promoting the effort. Despite the complaints, local coverage is still the industry's main strength. Improving it will be critical to maintaining advertising strength over the long haul.



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