July 30, 2004

It's the Content, Stupid

Newspaper readership and relevance comes down to one thing: Doing journalism in a way that connects strongly with readers to make them feel the newspaper is essential in some way to their lives.

What have American newspapers learned about content in the last few years, a period filled with hard warnings and harder numbers about declining circulation and a time in which there has never been more advice on how to stanch the bleeding?

Not much, it seems, given a study of newspaper content just released by the Readership Institute.

The Institute analyzed the content of 52 U.S. newspapers ranging in size from 10,000 to 1 million circulation and found a stultifying predominance of political and government news, a continuing lack of diversity, a reliance on staid writing formats and very little evidence these newspapers are offering readers information that enables them to act on what they learn in the paper.

Here are some bullet points from study:

> "Politics / Government and Sports make up nearly half of all stories. ... Stories about Ordinary People, Obituaries and Community Announcements combined comprise less than 5%. On Page 1, almost half the stories (about 45%) are about Politics / Government alone. > About 45% of all stories, but only about one third of the stories on the front page, come from wire or news services.
> The most common writing approach is straight news (i.e., inverted pyramid style).
> Most stories do not have go and do information.
> People mentioned in stories and shown in photographs are primarily White, non-Hispanic, older and male.
> Few stories directly address the reader; a large majority is written in the third person.
> About one-fifth provide author contact information.
> A very small number of stories directly solicit content or feedback from readers.

This is tragic. In the wake of the Readership Institute's benchmark study in 2000, which documented causes of readership decline and proposed an array of tactics to reverse it, publishers proclaimed that wooing younger, more diverse readers was a priority and editors' organizations focused on ways to change the content of their papers.

Much as been done since then, and many editors and publishers are working hard to challenge old ways of thinking and refocus their newsrooms and business operations on readers and on customers. But there are too few of them and too many others are not doing enough.

Good journalism is rooted in the coverage of communities, large and small. The Readership Institute study shows that newspapers as a whole still fail to reflect these communities. There is more to a community, more to life, than politics and government. Communities are not made up "primarily White, non-Hispanic, older and male" residents (although that does describe many newsrooms.) Communities are about interaction, connection and citizenship. A newspaper that offers none of those is not part of the community. Small wonder it is rejected as irrelevant.

The lessons to be learned from this latest Readership are clear: More local stories, more people stories, more connection with readers, more diversity - in short, more innovation and less traditional thinking.

The Readership Institute has been saying this for five years. Is anyone listening?

Posted by Tim Porter at July 30, 2004 07:51 AM

As Waldman observed, in the life of an individual, the big news event is not who came in second in the Iowa caucus. Its the death of their parents, the birth of their child.

Telling stories the way only good writers can:
[Leopold Page spent years trying to persuade people to make a film about the man who had saved him and his wife from the Nazis. At last he found someone. Thomas Keneally tells how he stumbled on the story that became Schindler's List: Man to man] http://www.smh.com.au/text/articles/2004/07/30/1091080430505.html

Posted by: Jozef on August 1, 2004 05:35 AM

It's not just the content, it's also the trust. If the owner and/or publisher of a paper use the news pages as a Tech Central Station-style protein sheath to provide cover for the editorial payload, trust suffers, loyalty goes out the window, and the paper is perceived as a community problem rather than an asset.

Posted by: Anna on August 2, 2004 06:28 PM
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