Leo Bogart

The following originally appeared in Public Opinion Quarterly, Vol. 70, No. 1, Spring 2006, pp. 133-135, and is republished by permission of the author, Philip Meyer.

Leo Bogart, who died October 15, 2005, in New York City, called himself an “applied sociologist” because he spent his career in marketing rather than academic research. But his contributions to knowledge filled 14 books, three of them published after he turned 80. His appreciation for the nuances of opinion measurement and contributions to question design would have earned him distinction on any faculty, and so his career embodied the commercial-academic blend that has characterized the American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR).

Born in Lvov, Poland, he moved with his family to New York at the age of 2. He was a high school newspaper editor in Brooklyn when he found out about public opinion research. The year was 1936, and the young Bogart listened to George Gallup explain sampling methods to students attending a meeting of the Interscholastic Press Association at Columbia University.

Leo also edited the student paper at Brooklyn College, graduating just in time for World War II. He served in Europe in the Army Signal Corps and was assigned to an intelligence unit where his fluency in German made him useful at intercepting communications. After the war, he used his G.I. benefits to do graduate work in sociology at the University of Chicago, earning both the master’s and Ph.D.

He took the commercial route by accident. When he finished his course work at Chicago in 1948, he went home to New York and applied for the only academic opening he could find, at Hofstra University. On his way to Long Island for a trial lecture, he lost his wallet to a thief at the train station and arrived with only pocket change and the return ticket. He did not get the job. “My performance was appropriately disastrous,” he recalled years later.

Turning to commercial applications of his research skills, he was hired as a public opinion analyst for Standard Oil of New Jersey, today part of ExxonMobil. In 1952 he moved to an advertising agency, McCann-Erickson, as director of account research services, and in 1958 he became the director of marketing research for Revlon, Inc.

But his early fascination with newspapers never left him, and his skills and interests came together when he was appointed executive vice president and general manager of the Newspaper Advertising Bureau in 1960—a job that he held until retiring in 1989.

His most acclaimed contribution to the newspaper business came shortly afterward. Newspaper household penetration—circulation divided by households—had been declining since the 1920s. Much of that loss was duplicate circulation in markets with more than one newspaper, but it still caused a public relations problem for the industry. A better measure was needed. Measuring
readership with surveys was not the obvious answer because of the social desirability bias. Reading, like voting, is claimed by many more than actually participate.

Leo solved the problem with his “read yesterday” survey question to estimate average daily readership. His seminal idea was to ask respondents if they had read or looked into any of a list of locally available newspapers in the previous week. That placed nearly all respondents in the socially desirable class. Then, for each paper claimed, the interviewer would ask, “When was the last time before today that you read or looked into (the paper)?” Only if the person volunteered “yesterday” was he or she counted as a reader.

That methodology won the approval of the Advertising Research Foundation, and it quickly became the gold standard for measuring newspaper readership. In its initial application, it showed that 80 percent of adults read a newspaper on an average weekday.

The number has since fallen, of course, but the trend was foreshadowed by Leo when he realized that the decay of central cities and the move of retailing from downtown department stores to more specialized suburban outlets would hurt the newspaper business. To ward off that danger, he proposed to the publishers that they organize a seminar with retailers, academic experts, and
municipal, state, and federal officials on saving downtowns.

He described the reaction in one of his first postretirement books, Preserving the Press. “What we need,” said the board chairman of the American Newspaper Publishers Association at the time, a small-town publisher from Ohio, “is less sociology and more selling.” The seminar was never held, and newspapers continued to decline.

From 1977 to 1983, Leo, with help from Al Gollin, ran the Newspaper Readership Project, a major effort to alert the industry to the root causes of the decline and to develop a strategy for halting or reversing it. The project produced a great variety of insights, but, perhaps because they were self-published outside the academic mainstream, they received less attention than they deserved. However, Leo got much of the work into the public domain with his 1981 publication of Press
and Public: Who Reads What, Where, When, and Why in American Newspapers.

Leo was always conscious of the cultural differences between academic and commercial research. Academic research is cumulative and transparent. Commercial research, he said, is often undertaken “without the theoretical underpinning that provides insight and understanding rather than mere factual detail of transient interest.”

But he always found ways to contribute to the theoretical underpinning that was underappreciated in his day job. In his 1967 AAPOR presidential address, he provided an early warning against the overinterpretation of typical candidate and issue polls of that period. His observations were widely cited in academic literature, including Howard Schuman and Stanley Presser’s 1981 Questions and Answers in Attitude Surveys.

After retiring at the age of 67, he took a year’s appointment as a senior fellow at the Gannett Center for Media Studies and began a book-writing career that produced seven volumes in 16 years, including some theory, some memoirs, and some a mixture of both. Two of them, Commercial Culture (1995) and Over the Edge (2005), are powerful critiques of the effects of
advertising-supported mass media.

Leo was still working at making things better up to the end. Last May, he was an active participant in the Annenberg Commission on the Role of the Press in a Democracy at the University of Pennsylvania. Later, he and wife Agnes visited their second home on Long Island. He was admitted on August 7 to Mt. Sinai hospital with babesiosis, a rare but emerging infectious disease that was first reported from Nantucket Island in 1969. It is transmitted by ticks carrying the Babesia parasite. He died 10 weeks later. Leo Bogart was 84.