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By the Project for Excellence in Journalism

Pressure is mounting to get better yardsticks to measure audiences. And here, several forces are converging. To begin, different media measure differently. (Online users are counted monthly. Television viewers are measured almost minute by minute. Newspapers are measured by copies sold, not readers.) At the same time, more news organizations are offering their content on multiple platforms, making a solid audience figure even harder to determine.

Adding to the pressure, advertisers want more accurate counts as they decide how to spend their money. In an age when the Internet offers exact and detailed information about not only how many people are accessing a site but also for how long and whether they are exploring a particular story or advertising, the old-fashioned diaries still used to track radio and TV audiences strike many as antiquated. Minorities have raised the question whether they are undercounted in Nielsen ratings.

New media platforms within media are making old measuring methods seem incomplete. Radio listening now involves podcasting, satellite radio and more. The number of people listening is one thing. How long they are listening is another. Where they are listening is a third question.

Some media themselves are pushing for new measuring methods because the old ones no longer look so good. Newspapers, for instance, are advocating Total Audience, a combination of readers in print and online (a number much bigger than print circulation).

When it comes to the basic numbers, 2005 was a difficult year for most media.

In our first two years of this report, we found that only online, ethnic and alternative media were seeing general audience growth. Even that picture is now cloudier.

The overall audience for news online, for instance, grew little if at all in 2005, according to data from various surveys. And market research from a Dallas-based agency in early March suggests that the audience for the Web may have already plateaued, earlier than many anticipated. But those who did use the Internet for news appeared to be doing so more often. In particular, newspaper Web sites appeared to be growing, but there was more evidence than ever that this growth was coming at the expense of readers’ using the print newspaper, which in economic terms was costly.

The ethnic press, where the numbers are less certain, showed some signs of slowing down as well. Even the data gathered by the groups advocating for the industry, and sometimes suspected of being self-serving, showed declines in Spanish-language newspaper circulation. Spanish-language television, meanwhile, appeared to grow more. Univision, the largest broadcaster, saw a 19% increase in prime-time viewership in the third quarter of 2005 compared to the same period of 2004. The network is the nation’s fifth largest network. At the same time, two different surveys showed that a large percentage of ethnic minorities, somewhere between 70% (Pew Hispanic Center) and 87% (New America Media) consume some kind of ethnic media.

The alternative weekly press, meanwhile, continued to thrive. Circulation reached 7.64 million in 2005, the highest since 2001.

The rest of the mainstream media continued to have a more difficult time. Cable news saw median prime-time ratings grow 4% and daytime 3% in 2005, according to data from Nielsen Media Research. But using the more volatile measure the cable industry prefers, simple average, ratings were flat.

We prefer median to simple average (mean) because it is less susceptible to wild swings from momentary news events such as Katrina. Yet even by our metrics only one of the three main cable channels is growing: Fox, which now commands more than half the cable news audience at any one time (55% daytime and 59% prime time). But there is a new factor on the horizon. CNN’s Headline News now exceeds MSNBC in cumulative audience, the number of different people who watch over the course of a month. By any measure, however, CNN remains the leader in cumulative audience, by roughly 7 million viewers.

Elsewhere, the news was bleaker.

Newspapers, as noted above, saw a worrisome drop in circulation in 2005, approximately 3% both weekdays and Sundays. Between 1990 and 2004, the industry had already lost roughly 12% in circulation daily (or 7.7 million copies) and 8% Sunday (4.9 million copies). Some of the earlier declines were caused by the death of afternoon newspapers. It is even more worrisome that the new declines are being powered by something that is only likely to increase, the migration of readers to online.

The picture for the other major print medium, magazines, was less clearly down, but like newspapers, those titles offering news of general interest were suffering.

The big three news magazines all continued to fall. Time was down 81,000 (1.9%), Newsweek 54,000 (1.7%) and U.S. News 15,000 (.7%), according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations. But those numbers may reflect more a shifting than a general decline. Readership of other titles continued to grow. The New Yorker and the Economist, aimed at more elite audiences, saw small increases. (And a new news magazine that offers something altogether different is growing noticeably. The Week, which has no reporters but aggregates a summary of the week’s events from all the other media, grew by nearly 40%. The numbers are still quite small, 65,000, but it is an interesting phenomenon.)

In television, the trend was also not promising.

Network evening news ratings continued to fall in 2005, another 6% November to November. Morning news ratings, flat in 2004, also slipped, by 4%, a worrisome two-year trend.

Local TV news saw shifts, but some hopeful signs of a year earlier seemed to disappear. In 2004, the audience declines of recent years looked as if they might be stabilizing. In 2005, perhaps because there was no boost from a presidential election, early-evening ratings declined again — 13% by our count. And now there were signs that the growth area in local news—early morning–might also have reached its limit. By our measures, ratings for morning news were down 7%. On the other side of the ledger, however, there were signs that late news after prime time might be improving. Our numbers showed a ratings rise in 2005 of 7%. It is worth watching whether that is a one-year event or the beginning of something more lasting.

Radio may be the most complicated of all, in part thanks to the rapidly expanding list of new alternatives. The audience for traditional radio continued to hold, with 94% of Americans saying they listened to the radio every week, according to Arbitron. That number may soon shift, however, as advertisers and marketers demand more precise methods of audience measurement than the listener diary.

At the same time, however, new competitors grew. By the end of 2005, the XM and Sirius satellite radio networks had some 9 million subscribers, up 116% from the year before. That is tiny compared to the 247 million listeners of traditional radio, but it is growing.

Meanwhile, between 2000 and 2005, the number of Americans who had listened to an Internet radio station had grown from 5% to 15%, according to Arbitron. And podcasting, in which people download audio from the computer to listen to on a portable device, appears to be a boon for news. As an example, podcasts from National Public Radio were regularly making the iTunes Top 100 list. On November 21, 2005, according to the Online Journalism Review, NPR held 11 spots on the list — more than any other media outlet.