Alan Mutter’s post the other day—“The incredible shrinking newspaper audience”—got me thinking: is the newspaper audience really shrinking?

So I called him up, and we’re going to disagree. A lot depends on what you call an audience.

But, really, it’s growing.

Alan cites studies from Pew and elsewhere that say (I’m condensing for the sake of brevity; go ahead and click through): The percentage of people who used a print newspaper in the last week to get local news ranged from 36 percent in metro areas to 42 percent in small cities (much lower than during print’s heyday); and Web penetration isn’t much better; that 44 percent of Americans own smartphones and 22 percent own tablets, a doubling of tablet penetration in just one year; and that two-thirds of consumers go to “three or more sources” for local news each week.

He also cites an NYT study that says while 53 percent of the Boomer generation (those 55 and older) said they read print newspapers, only 22 percent of Millenials (ages 18-34) and 32 percent of Generation Xers (ages 35-54) used the medium and that “smartphone use is far higher in the younger cohorts than among Boomers.”

There are handful of vague perceptions flying around about newspapers these days. There’s the general idea that newspapers are going to hell in a handbasket and increasingly irrelevant. There’s the idea held by a segment of the newspaper business that believes that while subscriptions are down, readership as measured by traffic is up, way up, and takes some comfort in that. And there are the experts like Mutter who believe that the industry is kidding itself. There’s actually truth in all of them, but the question today is about audience size.

Let’s start with figures from the not-disinterested Newspaper Association of America, which keeps the circulation numbers and passes along ComScore and Nielson Nielsen traffic figures. The data say:

—Daily print newspaper circulation is indeed down, 20 percent, to 44.4 million, from 55.4 million in 2000 (aka “back in the day”).

—Newspapers’ unique visitors number about 110 million/month this year, up modestly (7 percent) from 103 million or so in late 2010, using comScore data. (The NAA previously used Nielson Nielsen data before, which isn’t comparable, apparently, but those figures rose also rose to 69 million in early 2010, up 72 percent, from about 40 million in 2004. That’s as far back as it goes).

Alan argues there is a huge amount of noise in those Web numbers, and there is. “Uniques” are a famously problematic metric—if I read the Chicago Sun-Times on my phone and my computer, I count as two.
You don’t want to lump print subscribers and Web visitors together because they could be the same people, and often are. What’s more, and Alan’s point is undeniable, this isn’t the loyal “audience” of yore. People zooming by via a Facebook link are not the same as print subscribers and in fact are much more likely to be loyal to Facebook than to the source of the link.

So, you need to discount the NAA’s Web figures, but to what? Unknown, but something well above zero.

Alan sends a link that quotes analyst Greg Harmon who has spent a lot of time on newspaper Web traffic:

As Harmon has discovered in studying the website traffic at dozens of newspapers for several years, online news consumers are not created equal. The audience, he says, falls into three distinctly different categories:

:: 25 percent of the unique visitors consist of loyal readers who visit a newspaper site an average of 20 times per month and sometimes multiple times a day. :

:: 21 percent of the audience comprises incidental readers who visit between one and three times a month. :

:: 54 percent of the visitors are what Harmon calls “fly-bys” - people who may come once a month in response to a link on another website that steers them to the newspaper.

Clearly, many of the 110 million people who visit newspaper websites, probably half, aren’t print subscribers, and many do so regularly. And all I need are 11 million Web readers to get newspapers’ audience back to where they were in 2000. I’m ready to discount Web traffic a lot, but not by 90 percent.

So in a technical sense, and in a real sense, newspapers’ audience is expanding.

Alan says in a note:

It is proper to say that lots of people look at newspaper articles from time to time. But occasional perusal - driven by a search engine or through social media - is not the same as consistent, persistent paid readership.

No doubt. Let’s call it a disagreement over the definition of audience.

Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014). Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman.