March 03, 2004

News from the Readership Wars

For the last four years, the Readership Institute at Northwestern University has been churning out good research on ways newspapers can combat readership loss by embracing these eight imperatives:

Service Push service into the "excellence zone"

Editorial & Advertising Content
Improve high-potential content areas
Focus on a particular type of local news
Make the newspaper easier to read & more navigable
Improve advertising content
Promote content more effectively in the newspaper

Brand
Build a positive brand that's relevant to readers

Organizational Culture
Develop an adaptive, constructive culture that is attuned to readers

A new survey by the Institute finds that many newspapers are trying to rebuild their newsroom and business operations about those imperatives.

The Institute sent the survey to "publishers of every daily newspaper in the United States," which would be about 1,450 papers, but, sadly, it received only 112 responses. The good news, though, is that at those 112 papers at least some people are thinking about readership at least some of the time - and that would not have happened to such an extent before the Readership Institute was formed.

Some responses that struck me as noteworthy, not only for their intrinsic understanding of today's evolving relationship between news producers and news consumers, but because they also reflect actions taken in environments that for decades have rewarded inaction. They are something ventured. Here is a sampling:

Lessons Learned

 The Daily Times (Farmington, NM): "The most important lesson I have learned is to throw out all my preconceptions as a journalist and listen to our readers."

 The Capital (Annapolis, MD): "We weren't listening to readers enough. Editors thought they had a better handle on what readers wanted when, in truth, we had no clue."

 The Desert Sun (Palm Springs, CA): "We have also learned to be bolder and more daringIn the various enhancements we have made, we have realized that we often need to be bolder than we first thought we could be. We have learned to take more risks."

 The Tribune-Democrat (Johnstown, PA): "I was surprised that our Neighbors section was rated so highly by readers - but it's all local. It's incredibly time consuming to produce, but it was ranked highest in our studies. Instead of it being the ugly stepchild in the newsroom that no one wanted to work on, it suddenly has value."

 Rock Island Argus (IL): "Culture and old school ways of thinking are formidable obstacles."

The survey reported an emphasis on overcoming those "formidable" cultural obstacles, especially those erected by the people with the most to lose - managers. "At the department-head level people resist and often fear change," one small newspaper said in its survey response.

The Readership Institute said efforts at cultural change - something desperately needed in newspapers, where risk adverse, confrontational behavior has stifled innovation and promoted insularity - focused on four areas: "increasing the organization's focus on readership; breaking down 'silos' separating departments; reforming personnel management practices to better support readership goals; and becoming more outward-looking."

Some newspapers, such at the Austin American-Statesman, tied cultural change to professional growth and created "a training program to teach all 236 of the paper's managers and supervisors about constructive management styles and
diversity."

Others, such as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, reported that "innovation, research and development" is now a "constant" component of a culture "that encourages innovation."

The Readership Institute report is hundreds of pages of long, but you should read at least some of it. Here's why:

First, it is encouraging. It would be easy to dismiss some of the comments as self-serving or nave (say, in their discovery that readers want local news), but to me it is more constructive to focus on the reality that readership - in other words, survival - is a growing part of the institutional consciousness of many newspapers.

Second, it is informative. Most of the ideas implemented by these 112 newspapers transfer easily to other papers. Perhaps those 1,300-plus publishers who couldn't bother to respond to the Readership Institute's survey might learn a thing or two.

Finally, it provides a benchmark of sorts against which newspaper journalists can measure their attitudes about their profession, their understanding of the communities they cover and their own actions to engage readers.

Links
 Readership Institute Getting Traction on Readership

Posted by Tim Porter at March 3, 2004 09:13 AM
Comments

"I was surprised that our Neighbors section was rated so highly by readers - but it's all local. It's incredibly time consuming to produce, but it was ranked highest in our studies."

I'm not surprised it was so highly ranked; people want news about themselves/people like them/their neighborhoods. What interests me most is the challenge implicit in the observation that producing it is time-consuming: That fact will have dramatic ramifications for the business model of any news-gathering and -distributing organization because it is fundamentally inconsistent with newspapers' current business model.

Posted by: Lex on March 6, 2004 06:33 AM
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