Category Archives: Research

Readership Research, Circulation, Site Traffic

Last Ad Buyer Standing – Outlook for Newspapers Dimming

By Mark Hanzlik, Executive Director

Every time I see a new post from Alan Mutter, I know he’s assembled some more bad news for newspaper publishers.   It’s like a traffic accident, you can’t help but look at ’em but you know there’s some bad s@%t going down.

Today’s Reflections of a Newsosaur entry from Mutter portends a bleak picture for newspapers’ near future.   accelerate By 2016, the local advertising pie will continue to diminish for legacy media.    Besides the current trends with most SMBs moving to newer, digitally-based marketing forms, he suggests the current generational divide will slowly erode with parents’  handing off ownership to their children which will only accelerate the move to newer media models.

Mutter shares some highlights from Borrell Associates, using these predictions to support his multiple warnings.

This post is just the first of a two-part series.  Oh boy, I can’t wait for the next, ugh!

Read the Newsosaur post via Editor & Publisher:  At Risk – The Best Newspaper Ad Buyers and take the pulse of the business partnerships in your own market(s).

Love of Research Reveals a New Career for Alt Veteran Sarah Billingsley

By Mark Hanzlik, AWN Executive Director

I’m not sure what constitutes a veteran in the alternative newsmedia business, but I’m guessing Sarah Billingsley’s initiation at The San Francisco Bay Guardian in the 90’s qualifies. After 15 years of service to the alt industry including the last four years with AWN, Sarah announced her departure to pursue an opportunity with a Sacramento-based consumer research company.   The field of research was something she’s been working toward for some time.

When Sarah joined our company in February 2008, she had recently returned to college to finish her B.A., and then began work on her Master’s in Communication, all while chasing advertisers, orders, artwork and revenue for AWN publications.


Sarah warming up for another AWN day

For those of you who have shared a cocktail with her at AAN conferences, responded to her numerous email inquiries, or chatted with her on the phone, you may already know she is a great communicator.   Now in her absence, you’ll have the pleasure of communicating with our equally helpful support team (Lidia Stoian and Sheila Malone) or myself.

Sarah was an important player during a period of change for our company.   In 2010, we moved in with the Sacramento News & Review on Del Paso Boulevard and revamped our sales approach. Armed with a background in ad sales management, she enthusiastically took over the primary sales communications role for AWN.  Our list of active advertisers was still fairly sizable at that time, so Sarah recommended and we hired Cody Brill, our part-time Ad Coordinator. Last month, Cody also made a major career move as he landed a full-time ad coordinator post with a local business magazine.    The two of them made for a wonderful one-two punch in managing the sales process.

Sarah, who was an early adopter and devotee of social media also wrote many of our sales and media blogs over the past few years.    She also became our resident research expert for national alternative media data from The Media Audit that we managed on behalf of AWN.

So, if you’re looking for either one of them on the outside (not that working for AWN was a prison term folks), you’ll be sure to find Sarah or Cody easily on Facebook, LinkedIn, or elsewhere on the web.     In the meantime, we’ll simply remember how much we enjoyed their company while they were here with us, wish them well, and we’ll continue to look for new opportunities to market our brand.

Sarah’s alternative media timeline:

San Francisco Bay Guardian (1997-2001)

Independent Weekly (2001-2002)

Sacramento News & Review (2003-2008)

Alternative Weekly Network (2008-2012)

Marketing, Sales Push by AWN for Q4

By Sarah Billingsley, Communications Director

As we contemplate the recent assertion ‘print is not dead’ from a report published by, we’d like to share some of the current marketing efforts from members of our sales cooperative.    We’re not only checking the pulse of PRINT advertising from national brands and agencies but we’re trying to pump some blood back into the veins before that patient expires.  After all, it’s the final quarter of the year, a time when we often see additional non-local ad dollars surface.

Earlier this month, AWN president Brian Hieggelke (publisher, Newcity and veteran seller in our network) sent a well-crafted e-blast to a good-sized list of advertising contacts (see excerpts from his letter below).   The clever message which took a fresh approach to our greatest advertising success story in our 17-year history was sent to past, current, and prospective advertisers in an effort to spark AWN marketing efforts.   Apparently it’s generated some response already- within a week, he received positive feedback and a several nibbles from advertisers an agencies who may see AWN as a possible marketing channel for their plans.   Here’s some of that letter:

…I wanted to drop you a quick note with an update on our organization, which is rocking its second decade. We’re currently 150+ publications strong, coast to coast in markets from Maine to Hawaii and from Washington to Florida, with a weekly circulation of five million in print and 15 million unique visitors online each month.

AltoidsNov97Our audience of local influencers is a marketer’s dream: educated, engaged, conscious and affluent city dwellers.

Over the last 15 years, we’ve worked with national brands in just about every category: spirits, television, finance, automotive, telecom, you name it, to help establish authentic local relationships with their target consumers.

Altoids is a great example. In the 1990’s, Leo Burnett’s creative team of Steffan Postaer and Mark Faulkner brilliantly seized upon the quirky British phrase “Curiously Strong Mints” and built an edgy, graphic campaign around it. Initially they used two mediums: outdoor, where the poster-like quality could reign magnificently, and alt weeklies, where the trendsetting audiences would shoot product trial and word-of-mouth out of a rocket. Within the decade, Altoids was a billion-dollar brand, and we’d worked closely with its media team all the way to the top.

Got any brands looking to make magic happen? Let us see how The Alts can help with a launch or a “freshening up.” Our capabilities include print, digital and in-market event execution.

In addition to Brian’s efforts, AWN sales representatives across the country are pitching The Alts to a wide variety of national advertisers in a variety of categories. The list includes our standard brand categories (wireless, alcohol, and tobacco) as well as additional categories that can also find a valuable audience within our industry (such as automotive, restaurant chains, political campaigns, and publishing houses).

Also we recently created a more up-to-date, customizable AWN sales deck for sellers within our network to take to market.    If you’d like a copy or are just curious, let us know and we’ll send a copy via email.

As you know, AWN needs active participation from sellers in order to continue to pursue advertising opportunities for the network.   We are spreading the word, and we would love to hear what you have been doing to keep this ball rollin’.   Please copy us on your e-blasts, send us your current AWN claims list, and/or give us a call and tell us how we can help you. We look forward to hearing from you.

Alt Weekly Reader Research Options

By Sarah Billingsley, Communications Director

One of our favorite things is to receive a RFP (Request for Proposal) for AWN publications. Ad sellers often receive requests for rates, specs, and deadlines, but also for specific demographic and circulation information. Advertisers ask for basic demos (such as gender, age and income) and age breakdowns are particularly important to liquor and tobacco categories.  Advertisers consistently stress the need for third-party research.

So, what are the options when syndicated research auditing services are cost prohibitive, or your product or market is not covered?

To help publishers wade through this challenge, we have been doing a little research of our own. Based on a history of advertiser requests, we strongly recommend all publishers acquire some form of readership research.   The way we see it, publishers have three options for collecting and presenting readership data to potential advertisers, and each option comes with advantages and disadvantages;  syndicated research, third-party research, and self-administered surveys.


One choice is to subscribe to an industry standard syndicated study (The Media Audit and Scarborough Research). These are two highly recognizable syndicated research firms offering comprehensive local market studies for print publications.

Reader research is expensive, and some argue these two stalwarts (The Media Audit and Scarborough Research) do not accurately reflect the true readership of alt weeklies.

Some complain The Media Audit data is gathered through overly lengthy (36 min.) phone surveys that at best capture plenty of useful data from a consistent yet non-representative audience.  This shortcoming is in part due to another complaint which is the lack of mobile phone surveys (mobile is not yet part of the methodology though several markets have been beta tested).

Scarborough Research also conducts phone interviews (16 min.) which are followed up with a self-administered survey. Written survey directions are sent via snail-mail (with “cash incentive”) and participants are directed to complete the survey online. Scarborough has also been testing mobile phone data gathering in a number of major markets but has not changed their methodology across-the-board.

The Media Audit (TMA) offers separate research studies for print and online readers, on both the local and national level. Visit their to learn more about the research and review their products.  TMA claims to be “The most comprehensive media audience measurement and consumer intelligence in today’s changing marketplace.”   TMA built their business on television, radio and newspapers and continue to have extensive depth within those media categories today.

TMA has been a research option for the alternative newsweekly industry for more than 25 years and has maintained an ongoing relationship with AWN for the last 15 years. Currently, 46 alt publications (A.A.N. members) are subscribing to their local syndicated research product. Some alt weekly publishers purchase the online research data too.

Scarborough Research offers a suite of services, from their Top-Tier Local Market Studies (researching 77 local markets, analyzing data such as market penetration and brand loyalty) to Scarborough Sports Marketing (demographics, shopping, and media information about local sports fans).  Review their products and services at Scarborough is noteworthy for their extensive number of consumer targets (1,800) and their research accreditation.

Scarborough built their business model for daily newspapers originally and continues to have that media group as a primary source in their data gathering process today.   Scarborough has limited client penetration within the alt weekly industry.   For a more in depth analysis of both syndicated research firms, see our side-by-side TMA vs. Scarborough blogpost earlier this year on this blog site.

Here are the advantages and disadvantages (as we see them) of syndicated market studies:



Another option is for publishers to utilize third party research firms that will provide less comprehensive market-specific data, but offer top-line market and demographic information. We focused on two circulation audit firms (Verified Audit Circulation, and Circulation Verified Council) who provide reader research services, as well as Pulse Research, a research firm that publishes a regular consumer shopping survey. These options (while less comprehensive in terms of competitive data) are considerably less expensive than syndicated research studies, and may be a viable solution for publications in markets not covered by the larger syndicated research firms.

Verified Audit Circulation (VAC) has a history of providing circulation audits for a large number of alternative weeklies over the past 30 years.  Alan Levy, VP of Sales & Marketing  describes their research product.   “In addition to our circulation audits, our readership surveys are mostly administered on-line. This is an extremely cost-effective way to gather audience demographics, audience reach and readership information. We provide a website link to the survey for publishers to give to readers and we tabulate the results. The report can stand-alone or be incorporated into circulation audit reports and the fee is in the $2K -$3K range.” The survey is ongoing, and the publications typically offer incentives for participation. Levy says they like to receive 300 “completes” to get a reasonable margin of error. More information can be found at and download  PDF research example.

Circulation Verified Council (CVC) also offers reader demographics, automatically included when subscribing to their circulation audit service. Annual CVC rates for weekly publications range from $1281 (0-10K circ) to $2401 (50-100K circ).  Jim Kennedy, VP of Audit Services detailed CVC’s services, some of which include:

– Readership Demographics product.   CVC circulation audits include an online & mobile readership study that reports reader age, income and education demographics in addition to reader’s planned purchases from over 30 retail & service categories.

– After every CVC audit we release a copy of your audit report and a certification letter to ten local advertisers chosen by you from your local area. Additionally, CVC is building a database list of regional and national media buyers in each state and local market that will be made available to subscribers.

Just a few AWN publications are currently subscribing to CVC auditing services; hopefully more will do so in the future which will automatically deliver a simple offering of demographics.   For more information about CVC audits and reader demographics, visit

Pulse Research is “an ongoing consumer shopping survey” which details national household shopping. The data is free to publications that help to promote the site by placing a digital ad promoting the market survey.

From John Marling, President of Pulse Research, Inc., “Participation would be quite simple, AWN member publications would promote the Pulse of America survey in print and on their websites. In appreciation, AWN and member publications would receive a complimentary copy of the AWN respondent results. Pulse Research would provide the incentive, which for Q3 is a drawing for six months of FREE groceries.” While the data is essentially free, Pulse provides a service called AdSeller, which helps users make sense of the data, and creates clean and effective sales presentations.   Publishers can choose to pay for this platform though it is not a requirement to be included in the research group.


Pulse has been known primarily for their research-based ad sales and marketing programs for daily & weekly newspapers.   Although Pulse is new to AWN, we’ve been exploring this option along with the circulation audit companies as an umbrella solution for smaller publications and markets across the country.

For information about Pulse Research and their AdSeller product, visit:

Here’s our view of the advantages and disadvantages of third-party research:



The final option, publications can hire a research firm to survey their readers or conduct in-house reader surveys. With tools such as SurveyMonkey, Zoomerang, SurveyGizmo, and PollDaddy, online surveys are free, or nearly free. These can be effective tools for instant feedback and to take your readers’ pulse.

Some publications also partner with their local universities to conduct research, which in turn offer credible, scholarly market data (not to mention great opportunities for Grad students). This kind of research, however, usually is a one-time survey and it can take several months to receive the data. Also these surveys do not come with report writers, which help sales professionals present the information.   These are academics, not ad sales folks.

Additionally, the data acquired from reader surveys only provides demographics and habits of people already reading the publication. The data is not compared to the general population data, which is traditionally Alt Weekly’s strongest selling point (e.g. Alt readers are more educated and more affluent than the general public).

Here’s our view of the advantages and disadvantages of self-administered reader research:



Publications need to know about their readers. Readership data can be used for planning special sections, selecting cover art, planning/designing editorial content and distribution.

More importantly, readership data helps publications sell advertising. We all know our readers are educated, affluent, and active – collecting data from (and about) our readers allows us to prove to the advertisers what we may already know.   By purchasing readership information, you are arming your sales team with essential tools they’ll need to survive in the sales arena.

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Print vs. Online

By Mark Hanzlik, Executive Director

When I read Jack Shafer’s post on Slate this weekend I wasn’t quite sure how to respond to his recent judgement comparing the print and online reading experience.

When you see the headline “Print vs. Online” you almost expect to see a much larger view of the two concurrent newspaper realities, in some sense maybe the differences between print and online advertising as well.  Instead, Shafer targets only one aspect of the contrasting media practices; retention of news.   To backup his personal findings, he cites an academic study from the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, a paper titled “Medium Matters: Newsreaders’ Recall and Engagement with Online and Print Newspapers”.   Shafer quickly points out only 45 readers were tested in the recent study, and how the results confirm his own print-superiority bias.   Also, considering nature of this academic study (one newspaper product only, NY Times) and very small sample size, one might question the results.


In this study there’s assumptions made about the behavior of readers and their preferences that support the theory readers are directed to a higher level of engagement with print products, and that online readers are simply just too distracted.  That may be true.   But, they also theorize the dynamic nature of the web itself doesn’t really provide for a memorable experience.   That’s seems unlikely to me but I can see how that’s already a fully loaded debate and both sides have valid arguments.

The case on behalf of a dynamic and highly variable online news and information platform seems so strong and so prevalent in the current digital environment, these findings seem impossible to accept.  Unlike online news platforms which come in a variety of design platforms and media devices, print newspapers are a fairly stable medium and have not changed the reader experience as dramatically over the past dozen or so years.  Publishers are no longer trying to make the print experience as much fun as the digital one.  I think a tipping point has already been reached, so it should all come down to how you slice up those readers (print vs. online) and not about whether one method is better than the other.

There’s another camp that suggests that news and media itself has changed so dramatically that clinging to an older model of delivery doesn’t really get you back to where we started anyway.  So, I say go ahead turn the page, click the page what’s the difference.