Special sections lose ground in the national newspaper chase

Sections ’95, the title of two rival studies by CIA and Leo Burnett, puts the readership of newspaper sections firmly on the stand. Nick Higham is currently BBC’s media

Copyright in ideas is notoriously difficult to establish. But the appearance within a fortnight of two competing and identically-titled pieces of research into readership of national newspaper sections surely can’t just be a coincidence, can it?

The first appeared on October 4, from CIA MediaLab. The second, carried out for Leo Burnett jointly with the Express and COI, was published this week – but had been announced in a press release sent out a week before publication of the CIA research. They’re both called Sections ’95.

Leo Burnett is grumbling about CIA nicking its idea, a charge CIA denies, maintaining that it embarked on the research and chose the name with no idea that Burnett was doing something very similar.

As it happens, the two pieces of research are not identical, and so not strictly comparable. The Burnett survey, carried out by the Beck Consultancy, only looks at readership of quality and mid-market weekend papers. The results are based on 2,000 interviews with ABC1C2 adults, with an individual questionnaire for each title and, something Leo Burnett claims is of crucial importance – a copy of the latest issue of each newspaper used as a prompt.

The CIA research, by contrast, looked at all weekday and Sunday national newspapers and is based on 3,000 in-home interviews by BMRB using section mastheads, rather than complete issues, as prompts.

No doubt the experts can have fun debating whose research is the more robust. But from the results it’s possible to draw some interesting conclusions.

The Burnett study, for instance, shows that despite the growth in the size of Saturday editions in recent years, people still spend more time reading their Sunday paper than its Saturday equivalent.

On average, it takes 54 minutes to read the Daily Express on a Saturday, but an hour and eleven minutes to read the Sunday Express. It takes an hour and a half to read The Times on a Saturday, but nearly two hours to read its Sunday sister.

On the other hand, The Sunday Times with 11 sections, which Burnett’s reckons contain about 45,000 single column centimetres and would take 15 hours to read in full, records rather lower readership figures for its two review sections – Style and Culture – than most other weekend reviews.

The former is looked at by 77 per cent of readers, the latter by 81 per cent, according to Burnett, while the Daily Mail’s Saturday weekend section scored highest, with 94 per cent. According to CIA, the figures are event lower: 53 per cent for Style, 63 per cent for Culture (which includes the TV listings), compared with a highest-scoring 71 per cent for the Independent on Sunday’s review.

Business and finance sections score rather lower, perhaps not surprisingly, given their niche nature and specialist editorial. The Times Saturday second section scores 92 per cent, but that includes sport as well as business news. The Sunday Times Business section (which also includes sport) scores 76 per cent.

But the Independent on Sunday’s business section scores only 61 per cent, and the Mail on Sunday’s Financial Mail just 53 per cent (that’s according to Burnett, the MoS figure according to CIA is just 34 per cent, and a paltry 29 per cent for the IoS, the most striking example of how different research methodologies can produce radically different results).

Is it worth a newspaper continuing, in these days of high newsprint costs, with a separate section read by slightly more than half of those who buy the paper? Especially when, according to CIA, only 35 per cent of the IoS’s AB readers (presumably those most interested in business news) bother with its business section, compared to around 50 per cent for the other quality Sundays’ business sections.

CIA’s research suggests that the newspaper with most to worry about is Today, still giving cause for concern at News International. Its Monday-to-Friday main section is read by only 79 per cent of those who read the paper at all, lower than any other newspaper except the specialist FT, whose main section scores 74 per cent.

CIA also reveals that almost two-thirds of readers surveyed are apparently irritated by the amount of mail order advertising in colour supplements, and that more women read newspaper review sections than the women’s pages.

But perhaps the most worrying conclusion is CIA’s finding that more than half of 15 to 24 year-olds flick through their newspapers rather than reading them from cover to cover, and that their favourite is overwhelmingly the listings section.

This suggests, says CIA, that 15 to 24 year-olds flick through their newspapers to find out about entertainment rather than news. A worrying trend? For journalists perhaps, though as I survey the drifts of newsprint littering the living room floor at the end of a weekend it’s tempting to think the youth of today have got it right.

The Higham household takes six Sunday newspapers, and I spend hours wading through them. Wouldn’t it be more sensible to junk the lot and take in a good movie?

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