Wednesday 24 July 2024      
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What determines reader-per-copy patterns for UK magazines?

This classic paper, given at the 1993 Worldwide Readership Research Symposium in San Francisco, investigated the patterns of magazines’ readers-per-copy (rpc) – that is, the relationship between circulation (ABC) and readership (as measured by the National Readership Survey). The main objective was to improve understanding of the determinants of rpc and the causes of fluctuations through time. It is based on analyses of data for 170 magazines for the period 1981-1991.

The paper was summarised as follows:

There is no simple relationship between circulation and readership. There is a natural expectation that when circulation of a magazine changes its readership should move in the same direction and to a similar degree, but this is too simplified a view. So is the understandable expectation that two superficially similar magazines should have the same average rpc.

I have drawn up a list of 20 factors which can influence rpc. Three of these concern the way the NRS measures readership and the potential for random or in-built measurement errors, but the majority of the factors concern the characteristics of the magazines themselves and the nature of the competitive publications. The 20 factors are:

The measuring instruments:
1.    Circulation
2.    Readership: sampling variation
3.    Changes in sampling or weighting techniques
4.    Changes in technique for measuring readership

The publications themselves:
5.    Source of copy
6.    Reading in public places
7.    Narrowness of appeal
8.    ‘Keep me’ or enthusiasts’ editorial appeal
9.    Changes in the editorial package offered
10.  Format of the publication
11.  Publishing interval
12.  New titles
13.  Launch of close competitor
14.  Changes in competitive publications
15.  Increases in circulation tend to reduce rpc, and vice versa
16.  Lagged readership
17.  Using it destroys it
18.  Other factors concerning content

Demographics of the population:
19.  Household size
20.  Composition of the adult population

Looking across all 170 magazines in the full tables, there is a high incidence of statistically significant year-on-year rpc changes. 84% of the magazines have at least one rpc figure which is significantly different from the previous year’s figure. Of all year-on-year rpc comparisons across all 170 magazines, about a third are significant changes. Thus for an average magazine there is a 1 in 3 chance that the latest year’s rpc figure is significantly different from the year before (taking non-overlapping fieldwork periods). Only a small proportion of these differences are due to changes in the NRS technique. It means that one should recognise that in this rapidly-evolving medium the reading of magazines has a force of its own that is not totally dependent on the number of copy sales.

Monthlies and bi-monthlies are slightly more likely than weeklies to show significant year-on-year changes in rpc.

One of the most striking things is how varied are the rpc experiences of different magazines, and the factors behind the figures. This is a natural reflection of some of the strengths of the magazine medium – as a highly personal read, a matter of individual choice, control of the timing, and so on.

To obtain a read-only Word file of the full paper, email

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