A reader who clicks a social media link can’t make up for the loss of a reader who reads the morning paper with breakfast.

That’s the reaction of media industry analysts to this morning’s release of Enhanced Media Metrics Australia (EMMA) figures, which show newspaper readership is up 1% overall since August due to a 7% boost in digital readership, which offsets a loss in print audience.

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But those figures don’t tell the whole story. “Total time on site is much more important than readership,” CCZ Equities analyst Roger Colman told Crikey. He says that while total reach is important, time spent with a product is ultimately more important. A subscriber to a newspaper like The Sydney Morning Herald would typically read the paper 20 to 30 minutes several mornings a week. By contrast, the average online reader spends just a handful of minutes every month on its site, a poor substitute for advertisers keen on making an impression.

Media analyst Steve Allen, of Fusion Strategy, told Crikey digital readers were not worth as much as print ones, even though some studies suggest the attention readers give to publications they view online can be more focused. “That’s the problem with the model,” he said, adding that if advertising couldn’t cover the costs of a newspaper when ad agencies were paying top dollar for it, it couldn’t be expected to cover the costs of reporting now.

Readership ultimately has little direct relevance to advertisers, because they’re either buying the print product or the digital product, Allen adds. Few bundled packages (where ads are featured across print and digital) exist, and they’re very difficult to sell, because a print advertisement on the front or back of the newspaper is hardly worth the same as a digital ad generated on a random page. “You’re paying for two separate audiences,” Allen said. “EMMA and Roy Morgan putting out total masthead readership may be interesting to us but it’s not ultimately what we’re buying.”

The EMMA figures, first released in August and funded by newspaper industry group The Newspaper Works, have shown vastly higher readership figures than those shown by Roy Morgan, which previously held a monopoly over measuring readership in the industry. Unlike Roy Morgan, which asks survey respondents to list what newspapers they’ve read that week (critics argue respondents might forget some outlets), EMMA is a face-to-face interview coupled with online data provided by Nielsen.

One analyst, who preferred not to be named, said the methodology of EMMA seemed more accurate, particularly in digital: “You can put cookies on people’s devices and get everything that way. EMMA’s figures, though they’re still being fine-tuned, are probably going to be more accurate in the long run.”

However, EMMA’s figures have yet to make a dent on Roy Morgan’s subscriptions. Allen says his firm currently only subscribes to Roy Morgan, which remains “the currency” for ad buyers.

Ultimately, Colman says, while Australian media outlets dominate Australian readership rankings at the moment, it’s a bit of a mug’s game in the long run, favouring those without hard paywalls and with broad global recognition. “What we’re seeing is the great globalisation of what was traditionally a national market, whether it was newspapers or magazines,” he said.

“Already, if you look at the top 10 Australian websites, three of them are foreign media outlets. The big global brands will ultimately displace the national brands. They’ll be like Dunlop Volley tennis shoes competing against Nike, Adidas and Puma.”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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