How many readers do you need?
And why that’s a much better question than the other one you’ve been answering (and lying about) for so long
It wasn’t dishonesty. It was more like fiction based on true events. When magazines and newspapers decided to broadly disseminate the readers-per-copy concept they weren’t aiming at their audience, obviously — that would be a very stupid publicity (“don’t buy one, borrow it”) — , they were trying to expand advertisers’ horizons and wallets.
Please, tell me once again why I should park this armoured car in your parking lot in exchange for one single ad, if your magazine reaches only 50,000 people a month…
There’s no good answer for that — assuming you’re both sober. That’s why, at some point, someone unabashedly unwrapped and served the readers-per-copy theory.
Look, each issue has five, six readers, which implies you’re not paying for 50,000 people, but for a quarter million.
Here's a masterful way to solve a problem: the use of an untestable argument. Is it a lie? Not exactly. That old magazine in your dentist’s office has been through so many hands, it can’t count, and most of the metro newspapers get more than one owner during their lifetime. So, is it a legit methodology? Neither. Tons of magazines and papers remain untouched on (or under) the table throughout the day, no matter how many potential readers pass by them. I know preachers offer a lot of variables and indicators, but it’s pretty much guess, the popular type of guess, the one you use to your own benefit.
Since readers-per-copy is not an exact science (it’s not even maths), as the years went by, this number got stretched out according to the needs. “Newspaper Network released a study saying that newspaper readers per copy rates have increased as circulation numbers have declined”, says an American report from 2010. “An analysis of 46 titles shows that the number of readers per copy has risen for all but four, meanwhile circulation was down for all but three”, reiterates an Australian survey from 2014. Same underlying problem, same magic trick.
Sometimes the trick is not magical at all. Somewhere in 1984, newspapers sales reached their peak in the US with 63.3 million daily copies, and since then they never sold as many issues. In 2013, the former Newspaper Association of America (NAA), after reporting 26 consecutive quarters of revenue losses for the industry, simply stopped compiling and releasing quarterly figures. And, last September, this same NAA announced that it would drop the “paper” from its name and become the News Media Alliance (NMA), deleting the old site and obliterating important data, such as 70 years of newspapers circulation charts. “Every time we released those numbers, about 100 stories would come out saying the newspaper industry is dead”, recognized NMA CEO Caroline Little, in 2013, when she decided that, well, information doesn’t want to be free.
By implementing this extreme-makeover through the years, the media industry tries (really hard) to enhance its readers’ numbers so it can please advertisers and attract more money. It looks like a print media prerogative, but it’s not. Not this time. Whimsical indicators such as “pageviews” and “impressions” were carefully smuggled into the digital universe to perform the same legerdemain.
That’s a daft assumption. Depending on how much you screwed up your business all those years, the number of users means almost nothing. Wanna bet? Enjoy this field trip to Canada, arranged by the Columbia Journalism Review, while I take your money. Top-10 Canadian newspaper National Post owes millions of dollars in debts and experiences continuous worrisome quarters despite their 186,000 daily readers. Its revenues have been steadily declining in 13% each year, resulting in the traditional unholy trinity of cuts: paper, jobs and benefits. Competitor Toronto Star and their 353,000 readers are experiencing the same erratic life. The corporation that owns the paper reported a $24 million net loss this first quarter and a 10% decline of revenue.
Instead of asking how many readers you can emulate, the real question should be how many readers do you need? Jessica Lessin, for example, needs 10,000. Long story short, Jessica is a 34-year old journalist who dropped her job at The Wall Street Journal to run her own newsroom. Almost four years ago, she started The Information, a news site that publishes “articles about the tech industry that you won’t find elsewhere”. The god that most torments publishers’ mind & soul theoretically can’t rule Jessica’s life. She doesn’t believe in ads. Yet she does believe in money.
Three weeks ago, The Information CEO gave an underestimated interview to Recode. Jessica’s been around for more than three years, but a few media players are revisiting her story due to the successful no-ads model. The Information collects $400 a year per subscriber (that’s $33 a month). It is more than what her previous boss — The Wall Street Journal — charges for a one-year access ($278) and much more than the first year of the New York Times’ loftiest paywall ($210). So why does this far-from-cheap approach work for Jessica Lessin in a way that advertisement never could?
- She has found a niche within the market niche.
- She routinely checks her beam balance that bears 10,000 subscribers on one plate and 24 employers — 13 of them reporters — on the other.
The Information offers other types of subscriptions, but 90% of users belong in the $400 category, so let’s stick to this price tag. When 2017 comes to an end, the company will have secured more than $4 million from monthly payments, and that’s why Jessica is fine — so far — with 10,000 subscribers. Most important of all, that’s why The Information has no need to mend its readers’ numbers. After all, in this case, that would be the worst type of guess, the one you lie to yourself with. When media comrades spend time and money reframing charts in order to detect readers where there’s nobody else, they’re not just trying to look good, they’re making an effort to justify a 300, 500 people crew. “I remember we hired our first reporter, and hired our second, but we always scaled as our business was scaling”, said Jessica to Recode.
The Information has some advisers, among them is Jim VandeHei, Politico co-founder and Axios founder and CEO. VandeHei is another fierce advocate of the subscription model: “I’m talking about really high-end subscriptions. You can get a big audience of serious news consumer, and as long as you deliver new information they find essential, you can charge a lot of money for it”, Jim highlighted at a CodeMedia event last November. “A lot”, he imagines, is around “$10,000 per person or per organization”. It would sound like a jest if the “Pro” version of his former site, Politico, hadn’t had 20,000 subscribers spending $8,000 a year. Each. “I would not run a company that is based on advertisement business”, VandeHei observed. Neither would I, Jim, if I had a $200 million yearly income perspective.
So, that means Politico, The Information and Axios figured out the meaning of life (which, for us, you know, would be how to squeeze some money from the internet)? Unlikely. That would require finding a way to produce life-changing content and, above all, make sure you can keep it (the content) coming so you can keep them (the people) paying.
However, the more publishers plan on ditching that advertisement trap, the less people will be interested in those “pageviews”, “impressions” or “readers-per-copy” mumbo jumbo. Better for the news industry, worse for me, that was considering my own private revolution. Medium splits our audience only into two segments: “views” and “reads”. Based on previous observation, this article will get around 500 views and 300 reads. It’s really low, but that’s not my fault. Blame those parameters, they’re unduly pragmatic. Besides “reads” and “views”, I would add new categories like “quick glimpses”, “told a friend about it” and “never gonna read it but love your effort”.
As far as I know, these are fine valid metrics (in case someone’s considering sponsoring this alluring space).