A rant about print newspaper advertising declines

By Gary Meo

Nielsen Scarborough

New York


Podcasting is a growing business for many media companies, and I listen to several podcasts each morning. One of my favourite podcasts — a weekly political talk show recorded before a live audience — has a segment called The Rant Wheel.

There are a number of different topics on The Rant Wheel. The wheel is spun and guests on the show — usually actors, comedians, and journalists — can rant about whatever topic the wheel lands on.

Print advertising is still a very viable and profitable form of reaching engaged readers, but investments in this area are dismal.
Print advertising is still a very viable and profitable form of reaching engaged readers, but investments in this area are dismal.

After reading the third-quarter earnings reports for the largest U.S. newspaper publishers, well, I just feel like ranting. The topic the wheel has landed on for me is “Print Newspaper Advertising Declines.”

As expected, a common theme in the third-quarter earnings reports was the continued decline of print advertising revenues:

  • Gannett reported an 18.7% drop in print advertising revenues.
  • The New York Times reported a 20% decline in print advertising revenues.
  • Total advertising revenue at tronc was down 14% in the quarter.
  • McClatchy reported a 13.4% drop in total advertising revenue — driven, primarily, by softness in traditional print advertising.

While there is some positive news on the digital advertising front, the declines in traditional print advertising continue relentlessly.

So, here is the question at the heart of my rant: Why do advertisers continue to leave print when there is so much evidence to prove that print advertising works?

We all know printed newspapers provide mass reach. Nearly 46% of U.S. adults read a daily or Sunday newspaper in print every week — that’s more than 114 million adults. We also know printed newspaper readers are affluent. More than 37% have annual household incomes of US$75,000 or more.

And we know print is still the preferred platform for many adults who access newspaper content. Among the U.S. adult audience that consumes newspaper content across platforms (print, e-edition, Web site, and mobile), the percentage that accesses that content exclusively in print is 46%.

In addition, studies have shown the advertising that appears in print is thought to be the most trustworthy by most consumers compared to other media. A 2016 study of 2,400 U.S. consumers by MarketingSherpa found that more than four out of five Americans (82%) rated print ads (in newspapers and magazines) as the most trusted channel for advertising.

Television was second at 80%. Nielsen’s 2015 Global Trust in Advertising study found that, among more than 30,000 consumers polled in 60 countries, 60% said they somewhat or completely trusted ads in newspapers. Newspaper ads were second only to TV ads at 63%.

Most importantly, research has shown, time and time again, that newspaper advertising drives sales. A 2016 study conducted by researchers at Michigan State University showed that study participants who received the newspaper did more online shopping for brands advertised in the pre-printed inserts than participants who did not receive the newspaper.

A 2015 study by Coda Ventures found nine out of 10 newspaper readers said they take specific actions as a result of reading pre-printed inserts in newspapers. Visiting a store, dealer, or other location ranks as the most common reader action, followed by coupon clipping, product purchases, and purchase consideration.

And, just last month at the DTC Forum on Television & Print in New York City, panelists discussed how print advertising can help the pharmaceutical industry reach a wider and more engaged audience. And while the discussion focused primarily on advertising in magazines, the power of print in driving sales was made clear.

One presenter discussed a case study in which a pharmaceutical company purchased print ads across five publications for a period of six months. The company observed a 22% increase in conversions from non-prescribers to prescribers, and realised an ROI of nearly US$9 for every dollar spent on those ads.

With so much evidence supporting the power of print advertising, why does print advertising revenue at U.S. newspapers continue to decline quarter after quarter?

Partly because technology driven competition — and the promise of better ROI measurement — has syphoned off a large share of the advertising spend. Partly because newspapers’ retail advertising base has dwindled as retailers struggle with their own challenges.

I would also contend that the U.S. newspaper industry just hasn’t done a very good job of telling the ROI story. Other than the Michigan State study, there hasn’t been much (if any) recent research tying print advertising in newspapers directly to sales. Other traditional media are publishing studies demonstrating their ability to drive sales — and they’re having success with advertisers as a result.

We know newspapers have large, affluent, and engaged audiences. We know readers find newspaper advertising to be trustworthy compared to other media. And we know newspaper advertising makes the cash register ring. But that message is not reaching advertisers — and that’s really something to rant about.

About Gary Meo

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