The readers are out there - even if they don't buy a paper

On The Press: Online, on a mobile, in a podcast... it's no easy job to find out exactly how people are getting their news

How many people are buying copies of the newspaper you are now reading? This may not much matter much to you, but it bothers the people who produce them - a concern that is growing daily. It is not hard to see why. Newspaper revenues come from two sources - sales and advertising - with the latter directly influenced by the scale of the distribution and the demographics of those who buy the paper.

We have now entered the age of multi-platform publishing, and in the newspaper business this means publishing all the content you have assembled in a variety of ways - on your website, on mobile phones, and as podcasts, downloads and video. Newspaper offices are now, for many who work in them, media offices, with radio and TV studios and new organisational structures to steer content to different outlets.

Look at today's ABC figures for the nationals and the recent dire figures for the regional press and it's obvious that newspaper sales are declining. So are newspaper advertising revenues. And all this while the appetite for news online, on phone, on pod, grows.

Advertisers require independent auditing, and ABC, the Audit Bureau of Circulations, operates to a code adhered to by all the papers. The internet, as an emerging news medium, is measured by a variety of organisations so there is no clearly agreed comparator.

The matter is further confused by what you measure and how you measure it. Online is global; most advertisers are national, regional or local. And how are we measuring the numbers logging on to a particular newspaper website - in terms of unique users, or of the audience size or reach? Similarly, what do we mean when we talk about the frequency with which one person goes to one site - number of different places (pages) visited, or frequency of use?

Arguments about all this came to a head recently with The Daily Telegraph's claims to be the most popular newspaper website in the UK. The Guardian disputed this and the Advertising Standards Authority is on the case. And ABCE, the electronic wing of the ABC that is featured here each month, is now providing data for page impressions, visits and unique users, although all three are not provided for all sites and not all sites are recorded.

Tomorrow's National Readership Survey (NRS) will show large increases in the readership - as opposed to the sales - of both Independent titles. The Independent on Sunday increased its readership by 34,000 (4 per cent) to 822,000. The Independent gained 58,000 readers (8 per cent), giving an overall readership of 763,000. The latter gained more readers during the course of 2006 than any other paper, while The Guardian was one of only two other titles to record an increase.

The IoS was one of just three Sundays to do so, the others being The Observer and The Sunday Times. NRS uses opinion polling to survey the number of readers of papers and their supplements rather than total sales.

The decline in newspaper sales continues. February, though, was a less catastrophic month than many, except for one or two usual suspects - the Daily Express down 8.0 per cent year on year and the Daily Mirror down 5.6 per cent. The Times, The Guardian and, unusually, the Daily Mail were all down more than 4 per cent.

The slump of the Sunday red-tops continues, with The People down 15.6 per cent, the News of the World down 7.1 per cent and the Sunday Mirror down 5.3 per cent. The Observer seems to have emerged from the "compact effect" rather badly, down 8.7 per cent. The giant Sunday Times experienced one of its worst year-on-year slides, down 9.2 per cent, although at £2 a copy it is probably making as much money as ever.

The Daily Telegraph and The Independent will see falls of less than 1 per cent as a stable performance. This could not be said for the London Evening Standard, where the situation gets ever worse - down 20 per cent year on year.

Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield

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