Nobody Can Measure Offline Readership  

A blog about business and economics.
Feb. 9 2014 11:07 AM

Why It's So Hard to Measure Analog Readership

What does it all mean?

Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Derek Thompson has a good piece on the difficulties and ambiguities of measuring online readership. But I think the only way to understand this correctly is to start with the near-impossibility of measuring analog readership. 

Typically an analog magazine won't even try to measure readership of its offerings. It will instead offer subscription figures. But knowing how many people subscribe to Time gives us almost no information about how many people read Time. An issue in the waiting room of a doctor's office might be read by many people. Issues delivered in the mail to households might pile up on the coffee table. A household might have two or three enthusiastic readers of the magazines it subscribes to. Or one enthusiastic reader and another person who picks it up from time to time since it's there. The best you can do is count up all the adults living in all the households that subscribe and say that this is a kind of upper-bound on your readership. You know that not all of those people read your magazine, but probably the vast majority of them at least see your magazine and might read it.


But not only is there a huge error bound on this kind of guesstimation, it's not at all informative about the interesting questions you might have about a magazine's readership.

A writer, for example, would probably like to know which of her articles are popular. And her editor would probably like to know as well. On the one hand, it's good to write about subjects that people are interested in. On the other hand, it's good to put in the work to make people interested in the most important issues. But subscription data doesn't tell you anything about this.

An advertiser, meanwhile, is going to want to know how many people are likely to see any particular advertisement. Circulation numbers just don't tell you about this. Clearly all else being equal if Magazine A has double the subscriber base of Magazine B, an ad in Magazine A is likely to be seen by more people than an ad in Magazine B. But "all else being equal" is doing a lot of the work here. How long are the magazines? What is the actual behavior of the readers?

On digital, the problem isn't so much that the audience is harder to measure as it is that you're going to get more arguments about it. With analog, you have basically two numbers—paid subscriptions and newsstand sales. The numbers aren't very informative, but they are unambiguous. On digital, page views gives you valuable information. Monthly unique visitors gives you valuable information. Different measures of dwell time and sharing also give you valuable information. All told, a thorough battery of digital statistics probably gives you a much more accurate and more nuanced portrait of readership than old analog stats did. But because there are conflicting pieces of valid information and a bunch of money at stake, you also see more arguments about it.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.



Meet the New Bosses

How the Republicans would run the Senate.

The Government Is Giving Millions of Dollars in Electric-Car Subsidies to the Wrong Drivers

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Photos of the Crowds That Took Over NYC for the People’s Climate March

Friends Was the Last Purely Pleasurable Sitcom

The Eye

This Whimsical Driverless Car Imagines Transportation in 2059

Medical Examiner

Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?  

A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.

I Wrote a Novel Envisioning a Nigerian Space Program. Then I Learned Nigeria Actually Has One.

A Futurama Writer on How the Vietnam War Shaped the Series

  News & Politics
Sept. 21 2014 11:34 PM People’s Climate March in Photos Hundreds of thousands of marchers took to the streets of NYC in the largest climate rally in history.
Business Insider
Sept. 22 2014 9:39 AM Adrian Peterson Has a Terrible Contract, and Cutting Him Would Save the Vikings a Lot of Money
The Eye
Sept. 22 2014 9:12 AM What Is This Singaporean Road Sign Trying to Tell Us?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Sept. 22 2014 8:08 AM Slate Voice: “Why Is So Much Honey Clover Honey?” Mike Vuolo shares the story of your honey.
Sept. 21 2014 9:00 PM Attractive People Being Funny While Doing Amusing and Sometimes Romantic Things Don’t dismiss it. Friends was a truly great show.
Future Tense
Sept. 22 2014 7:47 AM Predicting the Future for the U.S. Government The strange but satisfying work of creating the National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends report.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 22 2014 5:30 AM MAVEN Arrives at Mars
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.