Alan Mutter throws a new metric into the newspaper debate – relevancy; Chris Oakley points to a ’stampede to irrelevance’. So how do the UK numbers stack?

I have long been a fan of the works of Alan Mutter, @newsosaur.

In fact he first graced these pages way back in September, 2008, as Brian P Tierney and the fate of the Philly Inquirer caught the attention.

This week and he was casting his eye over another famed metro newspaper now in straitened circumstances – The Boston Globe. Cast adrift by the NYT as it, in turn, sought to establish itself ever more as a global recorder of note.

The piece is here. It is another great read.

There was one line, however, that stood out for me; it was a new metric that Mutter turned to to demonstrate the Globe’s relevancy – or otherwise – to the sprawling metro community that it served.

‘…the Globe is trying to remain relevant to a dwindling number of readers and advertisers in a 1,422-square-mile metro area that includes 22 cities and 79 towns inhabited by 3,067,000 people,’ he notes.

What he then did was very interesting; he injected a new metric into this debate.

‘With circulation today of 225,482 on weekdays and 365,512 on Sunday – or less than half the audience that NYT Co. bought in 1993 – the paper is purchased by barely 7% of the population in its primary market area.’

The Newspaper Society would already be crying foul at this point; ‘relevancy’ is but a poor cousin to ‘reach…’ , their long-favoured word of choice. And, besides, every paper is – of course – read by every member of a household, shared three or four times; the readership – as opposed to the physical circulation number is clearly three or four times the figure that Mutter cites. The implication being that The Globe is irrelevant to 93% of people in the greater Boston metropolitan area.

But it was actually one of their own that threw the term into the pot this week… regional newspapers were engaged in a ’stampede to irrelevance’, claimed former Newspaper Society President, Chris Oakley.

Today and the latest Regional ABC circulation figures were released; Press Gazette reported them in full. The story of the UK’s ‘metro dailies’ makes for a grim read; particularly for a one-time Evening News (Norwich) football reporter. Down 19.2% year-on-year to 13,322.

The population of the Norwich ‘Travel To Work’ area is… 376,500. The area is ‘the area of Norwich in which most people both live and work…

‘The paper is purchased by 3.5% of the population in its primary market area…’ to re-quote Mutter.

If we narrow ‘Norwich’ down to that controlled by Norwich City Council, the figure is almost exactly 10% (13,322/132,200)

The Brighton Argus is now purchased by 19,199; the local authority covers a population of 273,000.

‘The paper is purchased by barely 7% of the population (7.03%) in its primary market area…’

Liverpool fares better at 16.7% (77,849 circ Echo/466,400 pop); Leeds is 4.8% (35,940 circ YEP/751,500).

Even if we allowed for babes in arms and the infirm being whipped out of the population figures, the 320,600 households in Leeds still returns a ‘Mutter relevancy’ figure of 11%.

Birmingham has a population of 1.1 million; the largest local authority in Britain. The average circulation for The Birmingham Mail was 40,004. That puts the Mutter figure at 3.6%.

Manchester is 14.9% (74,702 circ MEN/502,900)

Greater Manchester has a population of 2,682,500. That comes out at 2.8%.

The counter-argument is clearly the new-found ‘reach’ of everyone’s digital and mobile property portfolios… Then, of course, the numbers will rise again. That’s where the new relevancy lies; just not yet the new revenues.

The problem comes with brand; that if awareness of said mobile and digital apps rests over-long on the residual resonance of the paper brand, then there is every chance that the brand itself is becoming ever less relevant to the lives of those within their target markets.

It is a situation that vexed Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger… in 2009.

‘…that for the first time since the Enlightenment you are going to have major cities in the UK and western democracies without any verifiable news…” he opined. The interesting point now being whether the likes of MadeInLeeds ‘TV’ or YourTV Manchester can bring ‘verifiable news’ to the metropolitan masses in a manner that can prove more relevant to that urban audience.

Hopefully, Jamie (Conway), the CEO of Made TV, can shed a little more light on that front when he speaks to David Hayward at #1000flowers next week.

And here’s the other interesting point; why the UK’s ‘metro daily’ market is about to find itself with a new challenge in the sense of their relevancy to their metro audiences.

As Jeremy Hunt was always swift to point out, why was it that Birmingham, Alabama, had eight ‘local’ TV stations and Birmingham, UK, none?

The Boston Globe has had to compete with 17 ‘full-power TV stations’ in the Boston market for years – and yet it has remained twice (3.5% vs 7%) as relevant to its audience than the metro daily newspaper in Birmingham, UK, who has never before had to fight for eye-balls and ad dollars with a single city TV station.

The like of which is arriving in the next 12 months.

One might, therefore, suggest that the fight for newspaper brand relevancy in the metropolitan areas of the UK has only just begun. And I haven’t even mentioned this…


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