Put the toaster away

December 2, 2003

American Journalism Review reports on the latest readership research about what gets people to read the paper:

Perhaps the most noticeable single theme is optimism. While full of sobering data and often critical of newspapers, the studies are strikingly upbeat. The project’s kickoff report in the spring of 2001, the first of dozens, signaled the tone with this opening declaration: “The study shows that forces outside newspapers’ control–such as the explosion of competition, a perceived lack of consumers’ free time, and demographic changes–are dwarfed by the things that newspapers can control.”

AJR lists “four cornerstones of readership growth”:

  • providing excellent customer service
  • improving editorial and advertising content
  • building recognition and loyalty through stronger brand promotion
  • reforming management and culture.

Yes times four. Better content, service and management are obvious, but promotion is almost entirely ignored by most newspapers. We build a great product every day full of stuff people might be interested in at an incredibly cheap price, then expect the product to advertise itself. It doesn’t work that way anymore, folks. Hire the best talent, take some of the fat out of that bottom line and promote the damn thing.

See also, “What They Like.” You won’t like it because it obliges you to think about what readers want vs. what you want. If you’re a boss you won’t like because it says you have to pay us more and be constructive rather than defensive. And if you’re chasing those younger readers, you won’t like it because it says you’ve really got your work cut out for you.

Attracting younger readers requires more radical innovation. About two-thirds of lighter readers are under 40. In a report last spring, the institute said, “Generations X and Y are less likely to find that newspapers inspire them, have stories about people they know, have writers with whom they can identify, or help them be smarter or be more interesting.”

Between 2000 and 2003, it noted, “we found that generally people with a well-established reading habit were reading more, and lighter readers were reading less.

“What that tells us is that while improving current practices will grow readership overall, something quite different is necessary to reach lighter, younger readers.”

Interviews with younger, lighter readers found that a primary issue is “how to manage all the information coming at them.” For too many, “their local newspaper seems to them a repeat of what they have already heard…and not worth the time to page through.”

Researchers itemized four “brand concepts” that could help: frequent, prominent news updates; “talking points” that present issues in depth and encourage debate; “enrichment” sidebars adding background and “painless education”; and “guides” to additional sources in other media.

These in particular should frost all our cookies:

Local-local news tops the list of content that drives readership. The
research itemizes, in order, the content it says has the top potential for increasing

  • more intensely local, people-focused news, including community announcements
    and obits
  • more lifestyle news, such as health, fitness and medicine, home and garden,
    fashion and travel
  • more stories, and more featurized stories, about “how we are governed and global relations”
  • fewer stories and photos about natural disasters and accidents
  • shorter stories about movies, TV and weather
  • more stories about business, economics and personal finance, especially ones
    offering commentary and advice
  • more and longer stories about science, technology and the environment
  • fewer but more locally focused stories about crime and justice
  • more features and commentary about all levels and types of sports.

Each of us has at least three things on this list we would cover only at gunpoint, yet all these things are stuff readers want but we won’t provide. How come? Note they’re not saying give us more idiot celebrity news. Just stuff that matters to their lives. This should be a lot easier but it’s going to be the hardest to overcome, mostly because we’ve been in an industry that has, historically, allowed us to impose our view of news on the readers.

True story about a real newspaper: The boss hires this research firm to ask all these questions about his paper and gets almost all the same answers. He implements a few cosmetic changes that suit his prejudices and ignores the rest of the recommendations, and nothing fundamentally changed at the paper, including its circulation slide.

Let’s hope things have slid far enough that we feel we can’t afford that kind of management anymore.

7 Responses to Put the toaster away

  1. tom on December 2, 2003 at 8:25 am

    On reading the whole piece, I noted this gem:
    One survey, for example, asked employees about people management at their papers. It led to a report that seems blistering, at least by the comparatively tame conventions of research writing.
    “The results were remarkable and surprising,” the report said. “The overall scores were both extremely low and showed little variation among newspapers…. It is highly unlikely that there are many other industries in the U.S. today where, as a whole, they have a similarly low self-report in this area.”
    A point to ponder, if you’re running a newsroom: is there connection between the paper’s poor performance and the probability that you are doing stuff that makes us hate our jobs? First you have to find out what this stuff is, then you have to stop doing it.
    Even disgruntled employees will try to bail out a sinking ship, but happy ones, it seems to me, have a better chance of keeping the hull intact to begin with.

  2. Rich Boudet on December 2, 2003 at 1:00 pm

    Tremendous read there.
    I notice that GenX and GenY readers think the newspaper is simply rehashing stuff they’ve already seen. I have thought one of our biggest obstacles in the future is the belief that we are obliged to print news because we are the “source of record.”
    More unique, local content and commentary seems to be a way to go.

  3. tom on December 2, 2003 at 1:12 pm

    A real franchise could be built around finding the quirky, cool stuff going on in the community and writing little stories about it. Of course you’d need to hire quirky, cool people to find them.

  4. Rich Boudet on December 2, 2003 at 1:17 pm

    I think the franchise you refer to is the free city weekly. The Stranger comes to mind.

  5. Phillip Blanchard on December 2, 2003 at 2:47 pm

    I wonder how we could possibly publish “more lifestyle news, such as health, fitness and medicine, home and garden, fashion and travel.”

  6. tom on December 2, 2003 at 3:07 pm

    I wonder about the methodology of the research and whether it really holds up…like, did they structure the questions to reflect newspaper realities such as a finite amount of space and ask “what would you give up to get more of…”
    If you just give people a checklist of stuff they like vs. what they don’t like, they’ll want more of everything except whatever kinds of stories annoy them.

  7. joe on January 28, 2004 at 11:35 am

    Is anyone still reading this thread?
    I have a thought or two on this topic. Audible.com has the NYT and WSJ available in audio format. What if a big city newspaper decided to put general content (sports, arts, headlines, local news, etc.) out on audio? It would kind of be like TiVo for newspapers…
    The genxers could get the news they want and ignore the rest…