Opinion readership scores higher than common wisdom predicts

Opinion readership scores higher than common wisdom predicts

Susan Albright

The Star Tribune was still pretty foreign territory to me when I ran into the business editor one day in the hallway. His name was soothingly familiar – we’d both worked at the Louisville Times in the ’70s. His assessment of editorial page readership was familiar, too, if not so soothing.

“Well,” he said brightly, “your pages must be the only ones in the paper that are read less than mine!”

Yours truly was still glad to see him, and had enough grace to leave him to his reassuring fantasy – at least to what I thought was fantasy. Two years and a readership report later, I’d be much more confident in asserting that editorial pages aren’t at the bottom of the readership heap – and neither are his.

Indeed, data compiled last year by an NCEW task force add up to good news: Readership of editorial pages is much stronger than common wisdom and newsroom myth would lead one to imagine. The only bad news is that it is hellishly difficult to say exactly how strong. Much research is proprietary, and few pieces of research address the broad nationwide readership patterns.

Indeed, most research on readership is done by or for specific newspapers, not by academics or others looking at a broad overall picture – and a preference by newspaper executives for individual studies is becoming a trend, according to Albert E. Gollin, vice president for marketing and research at the Newspaper Association of America. Therefore, the disparate pieces of data often are not comparable.

When conducting studies, some surveys ask questions about the editorial pages as a unit. Others ask only about the editorials, or about the op-ed page. Some just include columnists, or cartoonists – or one particularly popular columnist. Some talk about frequency, others about intensity of editorial readership. All define readership in different ways.

Worse yet, some newspapers do readership studies that don’t ask about editorial pages at all, considering them simply part of the A or B section or wherever they appear – or considering them irrelevant to the purpose of the research, which often is to gauge readership for potential advertisers in a section. Hence it is important for the editorial staff to have a relationship with whoever does research on the newspaper’s behalf. In the absence of data, negative myths are more apt to persist.

Myth-breaking results

All this being the case, the Newspaper Association of America recently published a nationwide report on U.S. readership of sections and pages. It confirms what many of us intuitively suspected: that editorial pages are well-read, especially in comparison with other sections and pages.

Based on interviews with more than 22,400 adults, the survey provides the firmest nationwide picture of readership that the readership task force was able to find.

So who does read our pages – and how do we compare with other sections? Seventy-nine percent of daily (not including Sunday) adult readers in the NAA study said they read or look at the editorial pages – and among a listing of 10 sections or pages, that figure comes second only to “general news.”

When breaking readers down by such factors as age, income, and education, researcher John Harper (formerly with Belden Associates) said, “The demography of regular opinion and editorial page readers is similar to the demography of the newspaper overall, only more so. By ‘more so’ I mean editorial page readers tend to be even older, more affluent, and better educated than the average reader.”

NAA’s figures support that assessment. Among adults, editorial pages fare worst with the 18- to 24-year-old set – and best with the over-65s. Four separate age groups of 35 years old and over list editorial page readership as being second only to “general news,” while those in the 25- to 34-year-old group placed it third after general news and entertainment.

One of the challenges facing editorial page editors is that readership “tends to be quite geriatric,” in the words of Kristin McGrath of MORI Research – “more so than other parts of the paper.” She says the research data she has, details of which are proprietary, indicate that younger people think newspapers in general deal in facts and opinions, not in a “values dimension.” Young people are indicating that they don’t see so much a need to be informed about issues as a need to act, she said.

McGrath suggests a need for editorial page editors to think in terms of appealing to different age groups – particularly the younger readers.

Education and income

While adults at all education levels placed editorial readership second only to general news, the category showing the highest percentage of editorial page readers when grouped by education was the category of “college graduate.”

Similarly, while adults at all income levels showed a higher readership of the editorial page than any other section or page except general news, the percentage of those who generally read editorial pages was highest (in terms of income) among those who lived in households with incomes of $50,000 and above. Editorial readership is also quite high among those with household incomes of $20,000 or less – a fact Gollin says is explained in part by the inclusion of many retirees in lower-income groups.

A look at male and female readership of newspapers supports a traditional stereotype: All ages of men prefer general news to other sections, and after that, sports is reportedly read by the highest percentage of men, while general news, entertainment, and food draw higher readership numbers for women.

Readership of editorial pages comes right behind those categories, however – and above TV, business, comics, and other sections. Interestingly, among women the 55- to 64-year-old category is the only age group that places editorial readership higher than entertainment-section readership. And among male readers, all age groups except the 65-plus category had higher readership figures for sports than for editorial pages.

An interesting breakdown in the NAA figures shows that editorial-page readership figures are higher in the Northeast than in the Midwest, South, and West, with 89% of northeastern adult readers reporting that they generally read the editorial page. Editorial-page readership in the South fared the worst, with 74%. (Northeasterners had the highest readership numbers for all sections of the newspaper except “general news,” which was best read by Midwesterners.)

In another demographic table, the NAA data show Metro/Central City readers as higher editorial-page consumers than either Metro Suburban or Non-Metropolitan readers.

Readership intensity

The NAA report uses figures from a study that asked people if they “generally read or look at” a page or section. But what about a higher intensity of readership?

A 1988 Newspaper Advertising Bureau study (which was directed by Albert Gollin before the bureau merged into what is now the NAA) included intensity in its findings. It reported:

* The proportions of newspaper readers identifying each category (i.e. section, page, or feature) as one that they “usually read.”

* Proportions identifying each category as one of their three favorites.

* And proportions who “usually read” a category and say it is one of the three they “most like to read.”

The category of “editorials/editor’s opinions” achieved 55% in the study’s “usually read” list, 8% in the “like most” list, and 13% in the “intensity of appeal” list. The author, in explaining the meaning of the table, points out that “some items read by relatively few readers nonetheless have very strong appeals, e.g. comics, local team sports, and advice columns, for those who read them.”

The report further classifies various categories of newspaper offerings into one of four quadrants: “high readership/high intensity of appeal,” “high readership/low intensity of appeal,” “low readership/high intensity of appeal,” and “low readership/low intensity of appeal.”

“Editorials/opinion” and “letters to the editor” both fall in the quadrant of “high readership/low intensity.” (Note that “news about the president/congress” also fits into this category.) High readership is defined as “at least 55% usually read this item,” and low intensity is defined as “at most 15% intensity of appeal.”

The NAB report breaks all this down by age, gender, and frequency of overall newspaper readership. Among the findings is that women were confirmed as “better browsers” of the newspapers than men. With regard to age: Editorials, political opinion columns, and letters to the editor all stand out as being of particular interest to older readers.

Resources and readership

NAA’s Gollin says most newspaper executives see sports and business sections as business builders, and that editorial pages tend to be seen “as a cost, rather than as a profit center.” Since editorial pages and many editorial sections do not feature advertising, the relationship between readership and resources is often seen as meaningless. In other words, “reader interest does not translate to advertiser revenues.”

If today’s newspapers are looking for more and better ways to serve their readers, editorial-page editors must point out, as does Gollin, that editorial pages “do not suffer by comparison to others. Rather than sinking to the bottom, they enjoy a rather prosperous position.” Indeed, whether you break out readers by income, gender, age, whatever, editorial pages (like general news) attract readers in high numbers – higher numbers than most other sections/pages of the newspaper.

Gollin was responsible for NAA’s new readership report. He says that in addition to their own attractions, editorial pages enjoy an environmental benefit, if you will, “from their frequent location in the A section – the most heavily patronized” section, as he puts it. In addition, he said, editorial pages enjoy wide readership in part because they, like general news, offer a broad diverse menu. Many readers peruse the page and actually read only those items that interest them, depending on the subject.

Stronger pages

Another reason for editorial page popularity surely has to do with improved content. A Summer 1990 Journalism Quarterly report titled “Changes in editorials: A study of three newspapers” described 1990 research on The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, and Los Angeles Times from 1955 to 1985.

The report by NCEW member and University of Georgia professor Ernest C. Hynds said, “The number of editorials taking stands increased significantly during the later decades of the study, perhaps in response to increased use of interpretive and explanatory writing in the news pages. Slightly less than half (47%) took stands in 1955, but about three-fourths did in 1965 and more than four-fifths did in 1975 and 1985.”

Hynds also noted, “All three newspapers probably improved the writing in their editorials by making greater use of argumentation, explanation, and description. A trend toward more forceful editorials can be seen in all three newspapers.”

“In summary,” Hynds wrote, “the study data for these three highly regarded newspapers support the contention that newspaper editorials have been improved during the past 40 years in ways beyond obvious changes in typography….”

Add to this the stunning growth and development of op-ed pages over the past several decades, plus recent efforts to diversify both editorial staffs and contributors, and you have a recipe for myth shattering.

If the pages have changed, so have readers. The NAA material shows that more readers today than 15 years ago tend to browse through the paper. This suggests that editorial pages, which attract a very high percentage of those browsers, must pay attention to what they’re offering to make browsers stay and read – whether a cartoon, a letter, an editorial, or a column.

Several researchers mentioned the need to print opinion material that might appeal to younger readers, and Harper stressed as well the opportunities to attract women to the pages. He quotes Washington Post columnist Judy Mann: As an industry, newspapers are still “too male, too pale, and too stale.”

Accept that and move on, Harper suggests.

If editorial pages are doing well with readers, clearly they have room to do better still.

For more information

This article is adapted from Editorial Page Readership: A Task Force Report, which was presented at the NCEW convention in Phoenix last September.

The report, available from NCEW headquarters, relies heavily on a recent Newspaper Association of America Report titled Newspaper Page and Section Readership, as well as the work of others including former Belden Associates vice president John Harper, who excerpted his ’92 NCEW convention address for an article in the Winter 1992 Masthead.

NAA’s figures, which provide the most comprehensive material in the report, were taken from the 1993 Study of Media & Markets by the Simmons Market Research Bureau. In that study, the Simmons organization interviewed more than 22,400 adults in U.S. households.

For further details, copies of Newspaper Page and Section Readership, 1994 Newspaper Association of America Report can be purchased from NAA’s fulfillment house, ARS. The phone number is 800/651-4622. The report costs $15 for NAA members, $30 for non-members. Ask for Product No. 90016. You can use a credit card.

NCEW member Susan Albright is editor of the editorial pages at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis.

COPYRIGHT 1995 National Conference of Editorial Writers

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