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What do readers really want? Extensive study seeks answers

February 04, 2000

When it comes to newspapers, numbers tell a big part of the story. In 1964, when the U.S. population was 117 million, 80.8 percent of the people read a newspaper every week. By 1999, the population had grown to 136 million, but now only 56.9 percent are weekly newspaper readers.

For folks in the business, those numbers are troubling, but they may not tell the whole truth. They don't include "pass along" readers, who don't buy a newspaper, but read it every day after a neighbor or relative has seen it. And then there's the Internet, where there are plenty of people looking at newspaper websites, but not really paying for the product.

In an effort to find out what all this means, and how newspapers can build readership, a coalition of industry groups and Northwestern University's Media Management Center will spend the next couple of years studying more than 100 U.S. daily newspapers, to find out how content and service affect readership.

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Because The Herald-Mail is one of those papers, I felt readers would would want to know more, so I called members of the study group, including the Newspaper Association of America.

NAA staffers told me that they're optimistic about newspaper circulation trends, when compared to other media, like network television, where viewership has seen a steep drop. And as for Internet use, NAA staffers say, the latest research has shown those who use the Internet are likely to be newspaper readers as well.

According to John Kimball, NAA's senior vice president and chief marketing officer, the study will really have two parts, the first of which will be done through Northwestern University's Media Management Center.

MMC will look at the best methods all papers use to build readership and reader loyalty, Kimball said, while Sergio Zyman, former consultant to the Coca-Cola Company, will craft a marketing strategy newspapers can use locally, starting with four or five papers.

Another coalition member, the American Society of Newspaper Editors, is looking for answers to more basic questions, according to Craig Branson, ASNE's publication director.

"We want to figure out who is reading, and why, and get them to read more," Branson said.

"Circulation has been flat nationally and we want to determine whether that's because the paper was not delivered on time, or not delivered to their door. Or were readers offended by an ad that appeared three years before, or by the editorial content?" Branson said.

Innovative, readership-building techniques that survey crews will probably look at, Branson said, include one in which newspaper staffers take turns rotating in and out of the ombudsman's position. Or another at the Newsport News, Va., Daily Press, in which the managing editor or his assistant writes a column every day explaining the thinking behind what went onto the front page that day, and other issues.

Craig Bosley, executive director of ASNE, said that "some things will work and some will not, and that's okay because we'll be building a good data base and testing things out. And if somebody wants to try something, we'll be able to tell them where it worked or didn't work."

Bosley said the study itself will probably take two-and-a-half years. The first step will be finding some strategies that seem to work, Bosley said, then plugging them into other papers and doing follow-up work on how well the transplanted strategies thrive.

"By building the data base, we hope to know enough to replicate the successes," Bosley said.

The actual survey work will begin next spring, as Northwestern University's Readership Institute starts to study readers and non-readers in papers' circulation areas, to determine their attitudes and how they react.

Mary Nesbitt, managing director of the institute, said the study will cover the newspaper product, the staff that produces it and readers and non-readers in the paper's market area.

Nesbitt said participating papers will be asked to submit information on everything from their revenue projections to their hiring practices in every department.

Then there'll be a content analysis of each paper, Nesbitt said, looking at things like its balance of regional, local and national news, and how well it does at providing things that readers have come to see as basic information, like TV listings.

"The final piece of the puzzle will be doing market surveys of readers and non-readers in your circulation areas. The we'll see whether there's a correlation between all these factors," she said.

Do certain kinds of editors succeed where others fail? Do friendly paper carriers have as much to do with circulation success as snappy headlines? Those are some querstions I imagine this study might answer.

Nesbitt said that the survey work will begin next spring, and may involve "several hundred" phone calls to local folks.

"At the end of all of this, we'll have some baseline information, a snapshot in time, if you will, of how newspapers were at a given point. Then we'll encourage your newspaper to put some of these things into a real-life trial and measure your results," Nesbitt said.

As the consultants will no doubt discover, marketing newspapers isn't like marketing Coca-Cola. Our flavor changes from day to day, sometimes in a way readers don't like. I hope readers appreciate the fact that Herald-Mail staffers and many others will spend the next two years and a lot of hard work tryuing to figiure out what pleases them.




Bob Maginnis is Opinion Page editor of the Herald-Mail Newspapers

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