Monday, January 31, 2011

What do you want in a newspaper?

Our final reading of the week, Berelson’s “What ‘Missing the Newspaper’ Means,” brought to mind the many reader surveys I’ve been a part of in my career in newspaper journalism. Why do people read our products? What are our strengths and weaknesses? And most important, what should we do more of to attract more readers or keep them happy? Can we cut back on anything?

And again, I was struck by themes detected in 1940s (or earlier) research that are still true today -- even as the newspaper / journalism industry goes through this major change from broadcast to networked communication.

One illustration of the similarities between more recent reader research and the Berelson piece is to discuss a survey done by the Readership Institute (a division of the Media Management Center at Northwestern University) in 2004 called the New Readers survey. It was done at a time when a lot of media were trying to find ways to engage new, especially younger, audiences, but its findings still are applicable to a wide variety of audiences. There’s a bulletin board at the Lincoln Journal Star spelling out these experiences prominently; they serve as a good reminder for editors and writers.

The survey looked at the various “experiences” readers said they had with their newspaper that cause them to read more or read less. It looked at editorial (news) and advertising content, and it broke down those experiences into “motivators” or “inhibitors.” The survey found 34 experiences but focused on eight that it found to be the most “actionable” for newspapers:

The newspaper:
-- Looks out for my civic and personal interests (motivator);
-- Makes me smarter (motivator);
-- Gives me something to talk about (motivator);
-- Offers good service (motivator, especially focused on delivery and access);
-- Offers value for my money (motivator);
-- Has useful advertising (motivator);
-- Offers too much (inhibitor -- this can be stories that are too long, the newspaper has too many pages or special sections, or it tries to cover too many topics);
-- Discriminates and stereotypes (inhibitor).

The first two experiences reflect Berelson’s “serious news” findings. Berelson also found an aspect of “gives me something to talk about” in his research, pointing out that the paper offered a “tool for daily living” and social prestige and social contact. His research also pointed out a “too much” factor, in people who were relieved to not have to read the paper every day.

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