News Is Flat, But Yuks Are Up

Dour Ubermeisters of the Houston Chronicle have never been particularly forthcoming about the business operations of their paper, despite its oft-repeated slogan: "Houston's Leading Information Source."

The truth, however, has a way of leaking out of even the leadened corridors of the Lords of Texas Avenue. Scarborough Research Institute International conducted a slick survey on changing reader sentiments between 1997 and 1998 for the Hearst-owned daily. It issued a report -- "The Chronicle Reader, An Overview" -- that hardly shows Chronicle news to be a growth industry.

In 1997, 57 percent of subscribers bothered to read the main news on Sundays. In one year, that dropped by another 7 percent, down to 53 percent of the readers messing with the main news.

Sunday reader mortality rates for the mainstay of the news -- the local Metropolitan section -- went from miserable to downright awful in that period. From 46 percent readership in 1997, interest in the Metro news plummeted about 25 percent. By last year, only 32 percent of the readers bothered with the local news section on Sunday.

The State section dropped more than 10 percent of its readers, sagging to 43 percent of total readership. Even that old standby for the intellectually challenged, Sports, lost slightly more than 10 percent of its readership.

Finally, documented evidence that the Chronicle really is more boring.
But Hearst bubbas are bound to be looking on the bright side. Sunday comic pages are booming. Interest there spurted from 35 to 39 percent -- an 11 percent jump. Chuckled one paper staffer: "Now you know why we call it the Houston Comical."

For non-Sunday editions, figures are less dramatic. Main news readership is unchanged, while Metropolitan and Sports sagged slightly. In a sinister development, the Religion page dropped 8 percent, down to 21 percent of the readership. So did the Godless Friday Weekend preview, which dipped 6 percent. Even Thursday's Fashion became more unfashionable, with an 11 percent dip.

What little light there is gets amplified out of all proportion. Did you know the Chronicle was one of only three papers among the nation's top metropolitan 15 to show a growth in daily circulation from 1997 to 1998? So what if it was a measly 1,662 customers, for an anemic one-third of a percent increase? By comparison, the Sunday paper boomed with 4,154 more readers, more than (gasp!) half a percentage point increase.

And what are those anonymous readers really like? According to the report, 47 percent of the men in Houston read the Chronicle, as opposed to only 35 percent of the women. Sunday readers are evenly divided by gender.

Chronicle readers tend to be fogies over 45. On the ethnic front, Hispanics are under-represented, making up 21 percent of the metro area population but only 13 percent of the paper's readers. Chronicle readers are slightly more likely to be married than shacked up or single.

According to the report, the more educated and better paid a person is, the more likely they are to read the paper. It did not measure whether the more educated readers are more likely to laugh at it as well.

Republicans are more likely to read the Chronicle, as are executives as compared to workers. No, this ain't the Socialist Worker Daily we're talking about.

Most intriguing is a section that measures the psychological profile of the readers surveyed using a values code acronymed VALS. According to the report it is a system "that links psychological traits to consumer behavior and media preferences."

The categories include "actualizers," described as successful, sophisticated take-charge leaders; "fulfilleds," mature, satisfied, comfortable and reflective; "achievers," hard workers committed to grindstone and family; "experiencers," young, impulsive and rebellious; "believers," conservative, conventional and traditional; "strivers," uncertain, insecure, approval seekers; "makers," pretty much like believers; and last and least, "strugglers," elderly, resigned, passive and resource constrained.

You won't be surprised to learn that according to the survey the bulk of the Chronicle's readers are achievers, actualizers and the fullfilled, while believers, strivers and experiencers are under-represented.

And those poor old strugglers, who make up 5 percent of the population and the readership, just keep on passively reading the Chronicle, and getting more depressed.

-- Tim Fleck

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