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American Journalism Review
Continuation of <i>What Do Readers Really Want?</i>  | American Journalism Review
From AJR,   March 1999

Continuation of What Do Readers Really Want?   

By Charles Layton
Charles Layton ( is a former editor and reporter at the Philadelphia Inquirer and a former AJR senior contributing writer.     

In October 1990, with considerable fanfare, Knight Ridder totally and radically revamped one of its small papers, the Boca Raton News. As Tony Ridder, then the chain's president, explained to Mediaweek, "What we decided was to make a new newspaper from the front page to the last. We tried to find out as much about the people of Boca Raton as possible, how they led their lives, what they were thinking, what they did, what interested them. And then we tried to design a paper we thought would work for them."

CEO James Batten (who died in 1995) called the South Florida paper "a weapons lab designed to investigate and test new approaches to making newspapers work better for younger readers."

After all the market testing that went into it, the new paper wound up looking like USA Today, only more so: Short stories. Glitzy layouts. A flamingo-pink nameplate. No jumps. A color weather map. Extensive use of calendars, indexes and briefs. Extensive use of labels and large body type to make the paper "more scannable." How-to features. A daily good-news feature called "Today's Hero." A downplaying of political and government news, which was considered too boring. Greater emphasis on personal health and fitness, personal finance, consumer news, parent-and-child relationships and "reader empowerment" features. The redesigned paper was the centerpiece of Knight Ridder's "25/43" Project, which was intended to reshape newspapers for readers in that age group--a population much coveted by advertisers but less loyal to newspapers than previous generations had been.

By the time the refurbished Boca Raton paper was launched, it was hardly unique. Lee Enterprises and other chains had adopted many of the same graphic flourishes and quick-read features.

The interesting thing about Boca Raton was not that it failed in the marketplace--most observers agree the paper probably would have in any case, sandwiched as it was by two powerful competitors, Fort Lauderdale's Sun-Sentinel and the Palm Beach Post. (Its precariousness was one reason it was selected as the "lab" in the first place.) Knight Ridder's chief researcher, Jenny Fielder, says the Boca experiment actually did succeed in raising readership in the 25-43 age group, "but some of the older people didn't like the changes we were making in their newspaper." As it happened, half the people in Boca Raton were 55 or older, and they constituted the paper's most loyal audience. Offending them was a mistake. At the time of its 1990 makeover, the Boca Raton News claimed a daily circulation of 38,000, although it was unaudited and its competitors said heavy discounting and giveaways inflated that figure; a year later the circulation, now audited, was just 22,300. When Knight Ridder finally sold the paper to Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. in 1997, circulation was 15,000.

Ironically, given the way demographics are changing, the U.S. population 20 years from now may look something like the population of Boca Raton in 1990. According to a recent report from Northwestern University, 43 percent of the population will be 50 or older by 2010, and 47 percent will be 50 or older by 2020. "How do newspapers handle the paradox of an older readership base with disposable income and advertisers who want to target 18-year-olds?" asks Michael Smith, associate director of the Newspaper Management Center at Northwestern.

This is part of a larger dilemma for newspapers, the dilemma that Boca Raton illustrated so well: The kind of at-a-glance newspaper tailored to lure the elusive younger reader can be off-putting to older, more serious readers--the core audience that will probably be newspapers' bread and butter for decades to come.

In 1991, ASNE published a readership report called "Keys to Our Survival." It identified three main groups of readers. The first was the loyal newspaper reader, the kind who loves news and picks up the paper every day. The second type was the "at-risk" reader, who looks at a paper from time to time but has no abiding interest. The third was called the "potential" reader, who wants more information than the newspaper is providing.

The at-risk reader, the report said, could probably be lured into reading more if papers offered a diet of short, easily digestible tidbits of information--nothing very intimidating. However, the "potential" reader could only be lured by a paper with more depth and intelligence.

Each of the two groups accounted for an equal portion of the newspaper market, about 13 percent. And they stood at opposite ends of the spectrum, which meant if a newspaper wanted to increase readership it had to go after one or the other.

The problem with going after the at-risk group was that, in making a paper more superficial, it might offend its loyal readers, as in Boca. The problem with going after the potential reader was that, to do so, a paper had to beef up its coverage. It actually had to spend money and get better journalistically.

The ASNE report recommended the cheaper, easier route--going for the at-risk readers. And by and large, this is what the newspaper industry has done in the 1990s, even though logic suggests that you can please more readers (that is, two out of the three above-named groups) by investing in better, more substantive journalism.

On this very basic issue--"dumbing down" versus smartening up--ASNE has sent mixed messages. In a foreword to Ruth Clark's 1979 study--the one calling for newspapers to become more lifestyle-oriented--ASNE officers warned that it would be "exceedingly risky to cut back on hard news to emphasize soft features." And an introduction to a 1990 ASNE research report warned, "As we reach out to these occasional, distracted readers with clearer headlines, graphics, color, summaries and other devices, we risk turning off our base of regular readers."

In slicing and dicing the responses from surveys in its circulation area, the Los Angeles Times recently concluded that people with a high commitment to news and newspapers constitute 47 percent of the local market. Those with a medium commitment make up 26 percent, and with a low commitment 27 percent. The Times also found that a high commitment to newspaper reading correlates with high interest in national and world news. People who prefer a quick and easy read over in-depth coverage, it found, have a lower-than-average interest in national and world news. If this is the general pattern in other markets--and the Times' findings do seem to track those of other metro papers--then newspapers make a mistake by emphasizing the quick and easy while downplaying national, foreign and other serious news.

No research has been able to calculate just how much a paper can skimp on substantive news before it starts to drive away its core of loyal readers. But clearly, papers like the Boca Raton News or, on a larger scale, the now-defunct Arkansas Gazette, have paid a price by going too far in that direction.

An Associated Press Managing Editors report published last year contained this advice from researcher Christine Urban: "News coverage needs to be better and more intelligent. News is the primary reason people buy the paper.... On the continuum from easy to hard, the industry stays too much on the easy end. [It] employs concepts like teen magazines borrowed from other newspapers. These don't cost much time and don't upset many applecarts. By definition, they'll have little impact, which fuels the engine that we can't do anything about readership."

The pressure to give readers less substance doesn't just come from the so-called at-risk readers. It also comes from Wall Street. Miles Groves, head of market and business analysis for the Newspaper Association of America, said an investor pulled him aside at the annual PaineWebber Media Conference last December and asked why papers couldn't run more wire copy and get by with even fewer reporters. And in a report last November on Knight Ridder, analyst Lauren Rich Fine of Merrill Lynch commended the company for putting less emphasis on quality journalism. She told investors, "KRI's historic culture has been one of producing Pulitzer Prizes instead of profits, and while we think that culture is hard to change, it does seem to be happening."

With many publishers unwilling to invest much in better journalism, consultants and research companies try to make recommendations that won't cost much. Belden, for instance, has developed what it calls "The Belden Decision Model for Newspaper Content." This model divides all the content categories--metro news, pro sports, college sports, the arts, business news and so forth--according to whether readers have high or low interest. Then it asks readers whether their newspaper does a good or a poor job covering each category.

When readers say they have a high interest in a category but don't think the paper does a good enough job covering it, Belden recommends the paper "expand and promote" its coverage. But if a category is of limited interest to readers and the newspaper is thought to be doing a poor job with it, Belden suggests the paper "evaluate" its coverage--that is, consider cutting back on it.

"This is a directional tool," Tom Holbein told me. "If certain subjects land over here [in the 'expand' box] and the research indicates they should be increased, and you have no budget and no space in order to do that, and you want to respond to the research, then the first place to look for opportunities to cut back, or not to add resources, is over here [in the 'evaluate' box]."

Many research firms have a similar construct--a way of saying, "Here are things you can cut back in order to beef up these other, more important things." The trouble with most of these schemes is, it's very hard to find categories to cut back. Readers just don't want that. In the Belden Decision Model, for instance, the "evaluate" box contains such popular items as the arts, college sports, high school sports, local obituaries, restaurant reviews and listings, and personal finance and investment information.

Gannett has pioneered one newspaper trend after another. It revolutionized design, the use of color and the use of graphics. It proved that a newspaper company could raise earnings quarter after quarter in defiance of economic cycles. And it was the first major chain to really preach the gospel of giving readers what they say they want. So what Gannett does is always worth watching.

In the past year, New Jersey's second-largest newspaper, the Asbury Park Press, has gotten a dose of Gannett's reader-driven philosophy, both as it's preached and as it's practiced. On October 24, 1997, Gannett concluded its purchase of the Press and proceeded to change the paper's character from top to bottom.

The Press covers much of central New Jersey, and for its circulation size--159,000 daily and 225,000 Sunday--it may have been one of the best papers in the country for local news. It had a newsroom staff of 240.The capital bureau in Trenton had six full-time reporters; no other paper in America of the Press' size had more.

Its final year under private ownership had been an especially good one. The Press had undertaken a detailed examination of the problems of poverty, corruption and real estate fraud in its namesake city, Asbury Park. Jody Calendar, who was the deputy executive editor, said that initially the paper detached a half dozen reporters for the project. In time, others were brought in, including a business reporter, a state reporter and two specialists in computer-assisted reporting.

A number of criminal indictments have followed as a direct result of the paper's investigations, along with civil actions and a federal racketeering suit alleging a conspiracy to defraud $24 million from a mortgage company.

The stories won numerous prizes--a National Headliner Award, a Scripps Howard Public Service Award, a Gerald Loeb Award, the Clark Mollenhoff Memorial Award for investigative journalism, the National Press Club's consumer journalism award, a Garden State Association of Black Journalists award, and more. And as a big red cherry on top of the sundae, the paper's editorial cartoonist, Stephen Breen, won a Pulitzer Prize for his work that year.

Then came Gannett, with what it said was a plan to transform the paper in accordance with what the readers really wanted. As it happened, in the year before Gannett took over, the previous owners had hired Cambridge Associates, a Chicago-based firm, to do some $500,000 worth of readership and market research. And Robert Collins, whom Gannett installed as the new publisher, told me that in revamping the paper he had taken advantage of that extensive research.

One of the company's first moves was to announce that within a year the newsroom staff would be slashed by a fourth--from 240 to 185 people. The newshole would also take a significant hit. Overtime pay, which had been generous under the previous owners, was halted, and individual workloads increased.

People watched in sadness as some of the paper's best talent packed up and left. Business reporter John Ward, who had worked on the Asbury Park investigation, jumped to Newark's Star-Ledger. "I was made a very attractive offer," he said. "That was the biggest component of it, but certainly the fact that Gannett owned the newpaper.... I knew the newshole was going to shrink dramatically, and that the staff was going to be reduced by attrition."

Indeed, many of the people who had worked on the Asbury Park investigations resigned. Besides Ward, these included the project's leader, Calendar, who became managing editor of the Record in Bergen County, and reporters Larry Arnold (now in Washington for the Associated Press) and T.J. Foderaro (also at the Star-Ledger).

Arlene Schneider, the Press' highly respected Sunday editor, now works on the national desk of the New York Times. In Trenton, capitol reporter Herb Jackson moved down the hall to the Record's statehouse bureau. Eventually, five of the six reporters in the Press capital bureau left the paper, as did the state editor. The statehouse reporters were replaced, but instead of working exclusively for the Press the bureau now supplies coverage for all seven of Gannett's New Jersey papers.

Beyond the cutback in regular staff, the Press eliminated many of its local stringers. These were the people who had kept track of developments in the region's many townships and school districts. Not only did readers learn less about their communities now, but depleting the local bureaus made it harder for the editorial writers to keep up with local events and comment on them. Gannett also saved money by reducing the number of locally zoned editions from five to four.

The new publisher, Collins, imposed Gannett's trademark strictures on layout and writing. He made a rule that at least one story per day would not jump off page one. On the local news front, two or three stories a day, and sometimes more, no longer jump. Story lengths in general were cut, and reporters were instructed to localize their copy, whenever possible, by putting a quote from a local resident somewhere in the first five paragraphs. Herb Jackson told me that often, to get these local quotes, reporters first had to explain the story to people on the street, "and in doing so you'd kind of be shaping their reaction."

"We got quotes saying, 'That's really interesting.' "

Last August 28, newspapers everywhere reported that stock markets in America and around the world had taken a dive--the Dow fell 357 points--due to panic over Russia's economic turmoil and the impotence of Boris Yeltsin's government. "Boris on the Brink" and "Dow Sees Red," the New York tabloids screamed. The Asbury Park Press took note of these developments too, but its approach was to rewrite an AP story to give it a soft, local lead. The page one story began: "John E. Ekdahl, a stockbroker in Shrewsbury, had a hectic day yesterday." Where the AP had quoted sources from Wall Street and overseas--people with real knowledge of the day's events--the Press replaced them with remarks from local stockbrokers in Monmouth and Ocean counties.

In another policy change, the Press began charging for obits. As Collins explained it to me, the first 18 lines of an obit are free, the next 10 lines cost $45, and each additional line is $4.50. "The funeral directors write the obits," he said. "They provide the information pretty much exactly as the family wants it, which is exactly as it should be."

Last October an obit appeared for Joseph F. Murray, a former mayor of Manchester, New Jersey. It was 100 lines long, which by Collins' formula would have cost the Murray family $369. According to the obit, Murray had been an Eagle Scout, a member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, a ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church, a past exalted ruler of the Benevolent Protective Order of Elks, a trustee of an ambulatory care center and, of course, a former mayor.

The obit neglected to mention that Murray had also been involved in one of the largest municipal corruption scandals in the state's history, that he had been among those indicted for conspiring to loot the township treasury of more than $2 million, and that he'd been convicted and sent to prison. That information was buried in a five-paragraph item that ran toward the bottom of another page, under an inconspicuous, one-column head: "Ex-mayor accused of corruption dies."

(The Press also seeks to profit from obituaries of its readers' dogs, cats, birds and other pets. For $45 it will print a picture of your deceased animal companion along with up to 50 words of tribute, written by you, the reader. This feature, Pet Memorials, is part of a new weekly section called Critters, consisting of a pet-care column written by a veterinarian, a photo of the "stray of the week," a light feature story that is staff-produced, a calendar of animal-related local events, three or four color snapshots, mailed in by readers, of their pets--at no charge, so long as the animal isn't dead--and ads for pet stores and pet supplies.)

When I asked Collins what improvements he had made in response to reader research findings, he mainly cited the paper's new features sections. He cited Whatever as an example. Whatever is a six-page section aimed at teenagers that appears once a week. It contains original poems, drawings and essays submitted by area youths, a smattering of photo features, an advice column called The Chat Room, a letters column and a Pop Quiz for teens (sample topic: How well do you get along with people?). The section reads very much like a high school newspaper, but with less news.

Besides Critters and Whatever, other new weekly sections include Health & Fitness, Out & About, People, Techworld and Learning Curve, which runs soft features about people in the local schools. Many of the new sections rely heavily on syndicated and wire copy, especially from Gannett News Service.

Collins said that in the last year the paper has regained most of the newshole it lost when Gannett first took over. A comparison of recent issues of the newspaper with those predating Gannett bears this out. Furthermore, by shortening stories, the Press has been able to increase story count. But the news report seems thinner, especially in the areas of business, politics and government. The paper seems far less inclined to ask probing questions. Certainly, it is less inclined to explore Asbury Park's continuing political and economic problems.

I asked Collins what was the relationship between research and all the changes the Press had made. "Research plays a significant part in what we do here," he said. He went on to say that the paper's research had found "that the readers want more local news. That wasn't an earth-shaking finding, but it just got us to focus more with an intensity that should be brought to that commitment."

When I told him of my perception that local news had been reduced, not expanded, he said, "Your perception is incorrect," and that day in and day out "we are giving people more hard news than ever before."

I said I was nonplussed by his statement and wondered if, in some way, he had redefined the meaning of local news.

"The readers have defined what local news is," he shot back. "We don't define it."

On January 13 of this year, Collins was named Gannett's manager of the year. Richard C. Clapp, a senior vice president of the company, praised Collins for transforming the Press "into a decisive, results-oriented enterprise."

At ASNE's annual conference in 1997, a panel composed mostly of editors was discussing the impact of marketing issues on editorial judgment. Ed Jones, the managing editor of the Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg, Virginia, admitted that, "like most editors, I certainly have a case of angst."

"Five years ago, 10 years ago, my focus could be solely on content," he said. "Now, instead of the key question being, 'Is this a good story?' very often the key question is, 'Is this a good story that a significant chunk of our readers, especially single-copy buyers, will somehow connect to?' "

When the token reporter on the panel, Doug Pardue of the State in Columbia, South Carolina, was asked for his thoughts, he said, "What I really regret is that we no longer publish the newspaper every day to piss people off."

The moderator, William Boggs of Synectics Corp., a consulting firm, seemed not to understand what Pardue was getting at. "Is that right?" Boggs said. "We're publishing this thing, and we sincerely hope it has no connection whatsoever to your life and furthermore that it irritates you?"

"No, I think you missed the point again," said Pardue, who had just won a National Headliner Award for stories about women in the military being raped and sexually molested. "It's the watchdog aspect. It's not, 'Let's go out and find out what Mr. Suburbia wants to plant in his garden, and write about pretty things that Southern Living writes about.' That's not journalism. It's denial of reality."

In his 1996 book, "News Values," Jack Fuller, president of Tribune Publishing Co., faulted researchers for not delving deeply enough "into the real appetites that newspapers fill." He wrote, "I have seen no adequate explanation why columnists like Mike Royko can attract huge and loyal audiences by repeatedly provoking the very people who read them....

"Unfortunately, most market research has taken little interest in the deeper needs a newspaper fills, the very things the journalists worry are undervalued in the marketers' analysis. There is, for example, every reason to believe that readers expect newspapers to be courageous and bold, to challenge conventional wisdom and question authority."

In 1957, when Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus defied the federal government by refusing to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, the Arkansas Gazette not only covered the story comprehensively, it editorialized in favor of school integration. The community responded with hate mail, telephone threats, cancellation of subscriptions and an advertiser boycott. What, one wonders, would the Gazette's readers have said if a research firm had gone in and surveyed them? "I don't think there's any doubt that most people in Arkansas would have said they wouldn't have wanted so much coverage of civil rights," Richard Cole, dean of journalism at the University of North Carolina, told me. "I think most of the readers would have said, 'You're giving us too much of this.' "

And yet, after the Gazette had won two Pulitzer Prizes and gained international praise for its journalistic courage, it not only recovered its lost circulation and advertising, it became an icon of community pride for decades to come. Only in the 1980s, after it was purchased by Gannett and turned into a softer, less serious paper, did the Gazette start to lose the loyalty of its core readers to its rival paper, the Arkansas Democrat. The Gazette folded in 1991.

The Washington Post also made enemies in the 1970s by exposing the Nixon administration's Watergate crimes. But in the long run, says Sharon Warden, the paper's research director, Watergate "was very good for the Washington Post because it set a standard, and a reputation nationally. So that now we are the premiere resource for national political news in the country. And people trust us and go to us for that kind of information. Even our local research tells us that people in the Baltimore market want to read the Post" for national political news.

On the morning of October 29, 1991, Lois Wark, a special projects editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer, showed up for work and found a crowd of people blocking the front entrance. "I couldn't get in the building," she said. "It was like a movie theater, and they were lined up down the block."

Two of Wark's reporters, Donald Barlett and James Steele, had just published a project that was almost ridiculously long (nine days, 21 jump pages) and complex (it dealt with government economic policy). Yet as the huge series came to a close, people were pushing their way into the Inquirer's front lobby to pick up additional copies, so they could mail them to out-of-town relatives and friends. In the days to come, as parts of the series were reprinted in more than 50 papers around the country, the Inquirer was swamped with requests for reprints. They came from union leaders, company presidents, teachers, students, psychologists, truck drivers, lawyers and readers with names as familiar as Ralph Nader and Gregory Peck. Eventually, the paper distributed nearly 400,000 reprinted copies of the series.

"We set up a hotline for people to call, and their comments were tape-recorded," Wark said. "The first day there would be, like, 60 calls, and the second day there would be 120 calls." Eventually, the newsroom had to recruit typists from every other department of the paper to work a couple of hours overtime each night, either transcribing the tapes or mailing out reprints. "We had a little factory going here, shipping out reprints," Wark said.

The series was called "America: What Went Wrong?" Its point was that the concentration of corporate power, abetted by Washington's rules on international trade, taxation, deregulation and other complex issues, had produced massive job layoffs and a shrinking of the American middle class. This thesis was documented in detail and illustrated with example after example of Americans who had fallen victim to policies they could barely understand, let alone influence.

The series more than met Doug Pardue's journalistic standard of pissing readers off.

"I don't think I've read anything recently in any publication that has captured my attention like your series," a man in Holland, Pennsylvania, wrote. "I found myself blurting out things like, 'No wonder,' 'That's why,' and 'Those bastards' while reading your article."

Hardly any readership surveys try to measure the impact of this sort of classic watchdog journalism. One of the few that did was the 1997 ASNE study by Clark, Martire and Bartolomeo. It asked readers if they were interested in the "investigation of important issues." So how many said they were "extremely" or "very" interested?

Seventy-two percent.

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