Help needed in measuring online newspaper readership

The newspaper industry is in trouble and it doesn’t help that there is not an agreed-upon way to measure online readership:

It’s no longer uncommon for someone to own three or four devices that can access news content at home, work or almost anywhere. This array causes headaches for newspaper publishers and editors and sows confusion for advertisers who want to know how many readers a newspaper has. How should they be counted? Where should advertisers put their dollars? How many readers does an online advertisement reach? What’s an ad worth anymore?

Perhaps as vexing is who is counting readers and who counts them best. Unlike the methods Arbitron and Nielsen use to develop radio and TV ratings, the science of counting online and digital news consumers has existed only for a short time. At least nine companies have crowded into the business of measuring digital audiences over the past 15 years. Each company employs its own methodology to collect data. And because digital technology seems to leap forward almost every day, measurement techniques that were acceptable yesterday may not be adequate tomorrow.

With the money at stake in advertising and prestige, you would think there would be more agreement here. Without agreed-upon standards, newspapers can claim very different numbers and there is no way to really sort it out.

Why can’t newspapers themselves pick a provider or two they like, perhaps one that is more generous in its counting, and run with it as an industry?

Dana Chinn, a lecturer at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, said newspapers haven’t kept up with other industries that do business online.

“There is a stark contrast between the news industry and e-commerce, in that e-commerce is saying analytics is do or die for us because we are a digital business,” Chinn said. “News organizations don’t say that, because if they did they would use the right metrics. All the news organizations I know are usually using the wrong metrics to make the decisions that are needed to survive.”

This is a reminder that money-making today is very closely tied to measurement, particularly when you are selling online information.

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