What They Like
By Carl Sessions Stepp
Carl Sessions Stepp (firstname.lastname@example.org) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.
After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.
In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.
From the Readership Institute's Web site (www.readership.org), here are some of its key findings:
The fastest way to draw readers is to make papers easier to read and use. "Making a newspaper 'easy to read' is the single highest potential area for growing readership," an institute study asserts.
Surprisingly, the research says, ease "does not center around design or placement of articles." Nor do factors such as color, graphics or jumps relate statistically to ease of reading. Instead, readers want such things as "more 'go and do' information in stories," including phone numbers, times, dates, addresses, Web sites and the like.
Also related to reading ease: more health, home, food, fashion and travel coverage; more stories written in a feature style; and more effective promotion of content in the paper. These matters seem especially important for so-called light readers, many of them young.
Raising satisfaction with content increases readership. Like many institute findings, this one seems obvious. But, given all the potential effects on readership, from time to cost to format, it is important to find hard evidence that content is crucial. The studies, according to the institute, unequivocally "showed a clear, strong link between satisfaction with content and readership.... As satisfaction increases, so does readership of the newspaper....
"Importance of the story topic to the reader was the single most significant factor contributing to satisfaction.... Selecting the right topics, and within those topics the right news events or stories to cover, constitute the first and most crucial step to drive reader satisfaction with stories."
Local-local news tops the list of content that
drives readership. The research itemizes, in order, the content it says has the top potential for increasing readership:
* more intensely local, people-focused news, including community announcements and obits
* more lifestyle news, such as health, fitness and medicine, home and garden, fashion and travel
* more stories, and more featurized stories, about "how we are governed and global relations"
* fewer stories and photos about natural disasters and accidents
* shorter stories about movies, TV and weather
* more stories about business, economics and personal finance, especially ones offering commentary and advice
* more and longer stories about science, technology and the environment
* fewer but more locally focused stories about crime and justice
* more features and commentary about all levels and types of sports.
Feature-style writing helps increase reader satisfaction. Readership Institute research categorized newspaper stories as inverted pyramid (69 percent), feature-style (18 percent) and commentary (12 percent). "While inverted pyramid style is appropriate for most stories," it concludes, "nonetheless there is strong evidence that an increase in the amount of feature-style stories has wide-ranging benefits."
It defines feature-style writing as a more narrative approach to both news and feature topics. "Feature-style writing is found to increase satisfaction in a variety of topic areas: politics, sports, science, health, home and food among them."
Such a style, the researchers maintain, doesn't require "dumbing down." "Writers can use feature-style writing to cover hard news stories without compromising the stories' informational value."
Interesting ads attract readers to news. "Advertising content has great potential to increase readership," the institute found. "Readers actually spend more time with the newspaper and read more sections when they found interesting advertising content."
Strikingly, one institute survey found that "people rate the advertising content as slightly more important than the editorial content. Women, light readers and young people, particularly, rate the advertising content as being very important to them." It added, "People say that they are significantly more satisfied with the advertising content in newspapers than the editorial content."
Service rivals content in importance. The research pushes papers toward excellence, not adequacy. It says that good service's potential for increasing readership can be higher than editorial and advertising content or brand perception. Key factors for readers include on-time delivery of a complete paper in good condition, quality ink and paper, efficient billing, affordability and convenient single-copy sales sites.
Special steps are needed to gain African American and Hispanic readers. Both groups tend to be single-copy buyers at double the rate of white readers, so making the paper easily accessible is a priority.
In addition, Hispanic and African American readers "spend significantly more time reading advertising" than whites. Newspapers may need to rethink the adage that you first build an audience and then sell it to advertisers. Instead, you may first need the advertising before you can draw readers.
Attracting younger readers requires more radical innovation. About two-thirds of lighter readers are under 40. In a report last spring, the institute said, "Generations X and Y are less likely to find that newspapers inspire them, have stories about people they know, have writers with whom they can identify, or help them be smarter or be more interesting."
Between 2000 and 2003, it noted, "we found that generally people with a well-established reading habit were reading more, and lighter readers were reading less.
"What that tells us is that while improving current practices will grow readership overall, something quite different is necessary to reach lighter, younger readers."
Interviews with younger, lighter readers found that a primary issue is "how to manage all the information coming at them." For too many, "their local newspaper seems to them a repeat of what they have already heard...and not worth the time to page through."
Researchers itemized four "brand concepts" that could help: frequent, prominent news updates; "talking points" that present issues in depth and encourage debate; "enrichment" sidebars adding background and "painless education"; and "guides" to additional sources in other media.
Papers should manage smarter, train better, pay more. In tactful but firm tones, the research tells papers to expect little progress unless they improve how they operate. "Newspaper cultures are more defensive than other organizations," it found. Of 90 papers studied, 73 had cultures defined as defensive and only 17 as constructive.
"Newspaper employees also are confrontational, which causes unproductive conflict," the report said.
Constructive cultures "value (and reward) quality over quantity and creativity over conformity...people are expected to work independently and together toward common goals."
Newspapers, the researchers said, need to overcome major weaknesses in teamwork and coordination that lead them to "produce lower-quality products and services."