AJR  Features
From AJR,   March 1999

State of The American Newspaper
What Do Readers Really Want?   

Market research is supposed to tell us, but often itís confusing, contradictory or just plain wrong. Hereís why.

By Charles Layton
Charles Layton (charlesmary@hotmail.com) is a former editor and reporter at the Philadelphia Inquirer and a former AJR senior contributing writer.     

Bob Olinto's office, on the fifth floor of the Orange County Register building in Santa Ana, California, is a sunny little domain that looks out across a broad, dry suburban landscape split by a river of cars on the No. 5 freeway. It's a fine vantage point from which to ponder the fitful moods of the newspaper-reading public, which is what Olinto does as the Register's market research director. An ebullient man with snow-white hair and a matching, neatly trimmed beard, Olinto is eager to show off the readership surveys he has commissioned in his 14 years here. He lives with the numbers in these surveys, knows them intimately, and can, within seconds, put his finger on any reference.

The only trouble is, as we look them over, some of the numbers aren't making sense.

In a survey in 1990, people in the Register's circulation area were asked whether they would read the paper more often if fewer of the stories jumped.

Sixty-three percent said yes, they would.

Olinto explains that Register management had wished to start minimizing jumps anyway, but there were objections in the editorial ranks. "The reporters, they want to write," he says. "They just want to all win Pulitzers." But with such dramatic survey results, "we were able to cut down the resistance from the newsroom."

This morning's Register has five stories on page one, two of which do not jump. The Metro front has six stories, three of which do not jump. The average length of all those stories (jumpers and nonjumpers alike) is not quite 13 column inches.

"That is a direct result of the research," Olinto says.

Now he shows me an item in his 1997 survey, the most recent one. Again, people were asked whether they'd be more likely to read the paper if fewer stories jumped. And 59 percent said yes.

So let's get this straight. In 1990, 63 percent say they'd read the paper more often if it had fewer jumps. The Register gives them fewer jumps. And now, 59 percent answer the same question the same way, as if nothing happened.

Here's another problem: These people are fickle. After the paper gave them fewer jumps, they did not read it more, like they said they would; they read it less. From 1990 to 1997, the percentage of adults who read the daily Register at least once a week slid from 75 to 71 percent. The percentage of its most loyal readers, those who tend to read the paper every day, has dropped even further--from 55 to 50 percent.

Olinto shows me another figure. The number of people wanting shorter stories is 39 percent. But again, they're already getting short stories. How should the newspaper respond to this? Cut stories even more? And jump them even less?

"No, it just means they have a vote," Olinto explains. "They're basically saying they like shorter stories, they like fewer jumps. It further reinforces streamlining the paper even more."

Yet consider this: In the latest survey, 44 percent said they'd be more likely to read the paper if it had "more in-depth stories." In other words, the vote for more depth is as strong as the vote for less length.

And what of this question about "more explanation of complex issues"--what percentage say they'd be more likely to read the Register if it had that?

Olinto looks it up. The answer: 59 percent.

More complexity in less space? Greater depth with fewer jumps? Measuring the likes and dislikes of newspaper readers was not supposed to be this tricky. In a 1993 essay, Andy McMills, then executive editor of the News-Leader in Springfield, Missouri, summarized the newspapering philosophy of his employer, Gannett, by saying: "First, go out and ask your readers what they want in their daily newspaper. Then give it to them. It's that simple."

Well, it isn't.

After moderating a series of focus groups for the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 1989, researcher Kris McGrath made no bones about the "consistently contradictory" results she was turning up. They were not unlike the contradictions in the Orange County surveys. "People want complete news coverage, but they don't want to have to spend too much time with the paper," she wrote in her report. "They want in-depth stories, but they want jumps to be avoided at all costs. They want the important news, but it has to be personally relevant. They want substantial newspapers, but they don't want bulky newspapers that pile up unread."

These contradictions arose as McGrath asked focus groups to compare traditional newspaper layouts with prototypes containing the splashy graphics and quick-read features that came into vogue in the 1980s. As she looked at who was saying what, it seemed to be the occasional readers--those not very interested in newspapers to start with--who liked the skim-the-surface prototypes. Loyal, regular readers tended to find them offensive. "The comic book is not my idea of news," one said. Another said, "People who would read this would be people who don't want anything in depth."

From a research and marketing point of view, a newspaper turns out to be a maddeningly complicated consumer product. When Knight Ridder asked 1,000 people their reasons for buying a newspaper, it got 188 distinct answers--far more than you'd get for running shoes or breakfast cereals or even an automobile. The moral of the story, according to Jenny Fielder, the company's vice president for research, was this: "Simplistic answers to content and strategy will almost always be wrong."

Intelligent people with opposing policies can, and often do, cite the same research. Consider the perennial problem of the time-starved reader. On surveys, the most common reason people give for cancelling a subscription is, "No time to read." To Burl Osborne, publisher of the Dallas Morning News, this challenges the industry to make newspapers more compelling, so people will commit more time to them. "If you create more value--that is, if readers spend more time with your newspaper--the advertising works better," he says. "You can charge more for it. And that's where you get the resources.... You can stairstep your way into continual improvement if you keep adding value to readers. Because that will translate into value for advertisers, and that will translate into increased revenue."

But Bob Olinto has a different take on the "no time to read" problem. He says, "If we interview people and they say, 'I'm only going to give you 20 minutes to read the paper,' then we want to give them a satisfying read. And if they get into a [long] article that they want to read and it wipes out the whole 20 minutes, they're frustrated, because they've got a lot of stuff they have to do and they've only gone through the first part of the paper."

Ed Batson used to do consumer research for Taco Bell. Now that he's director of marketing research at the Los Angeles Times, the world looks different. "A newspaper...is not just another consumer product," he says. "At Taco Bell, if we found out people didn't like the green sauce, they like the brown sauce better, well I mean to tell you the green sauce was history tomorrow morning. Who's got ego involvement with the green sauce?"

The news, unlike a taco, is an unknown quantity. It changes daily, hourly. Consumers of news expect to be surprised--by something new! So asking people what kind of news they want is like asking them to plan their own surprise party.

If market research has trouble predicting which automobile design will be a hit in the showroom, or what new trend in fashion will dominate the market a year from today, imagine trying to predict people's appetite for news. We can say with confidence that people want the paper delivered on time and that they want the ink not to rub off. We can say they want accurate, fair reporting and that good writing and compelling headlines are a plus. And we can make some other broad generalizations, most of them rather obvious. Beyond that, the results of market research, as applied to news, are disappointing.

Although skepticism is a job requirement in journalism, newspaper people have not been skeptical enough about the claims made for readership research. They have not much questioned the accuracy of the surveys that land on their desks or the pitfalls of the methodologies researchers use. Most have not even questioned research's single most obvious failing--that it has not arrested the decline in readership, as its advocates have claimed it could. Over the past 20 years, at their annual conventions and in their trade magazines and in-house publications, news executives have spoken more and more of the need for journalists to think like marketers. As if it were easy, or possible, to know in advance what people want to read. As if the average citizen, in a brief telephone survey conducted by a part-time, poorly paid, not-very-well-trained surveyor, could articulate that. And as if compelling content somehow originated with readers and not in the individual mind of a journalist with interesting things to say.

For years now, editors and reporters have been told that their journalistic instincts were out of sync with readers, and that the cure for this occupational malady was research. In 1989, James Batten, then CEO of Knight Ridder, declared in a widely noted speech that newspapers had to become "more reader-driven, customer-driven, looking much more outward and less complacently inward." That same year, Batten is reported to have told a meeting of the company's editorial page editors, "The balance of power has shifted from editors to readers."

A decade on, however, it is apparent that newspaper research yields as much uncertainty and confusion as clarity. Much of it is subjective, unscientific and amenable to manipulation. Its heavy reliance on focus groups constitutes a serious weakness. Its results always depend on the questions asked. And questions of interest to serious journalists (for instance, what's the impact of challenging a community's cherished assumptions?) are almost never explored.

If, as Batten suggested, the balance of power is with the readers, and if what readers say is malleable and unclear, then in fact the real power resides with whoever gets to interpret their responses. This may be the researcher himself, but more likely it's a paper's marketing and advertising directors, its publisher, and perhaps its corporate executives. Maybe even the editor...or then again, maybe not. I haven't found a single case where a newspaper's research department reports unilaterally to the editorial side.

Given the lack of consensus and the vagaries of interpretation, it's been easy for some newspaper companies to talk about "reader-driven journalism" even as they followed policies that readers could not possibly endorse. Publishers and CEOs have sometimes used research as a cover for downsizing news staffs and trivializing news content. When surveys have found that readers want more substantive coverage, papers have often responded by cutting the space for news. When people said they couldn't trust newspapers because they were rife with errors, papers reduced the number of copy editors, then saddled the ones who remained with pagination and other tasks that make it nearly impossible to give each story a critical, thoughtful read.

While researchers have not raised their voices as a community against such cynical practices, one does find, in individual conversations, the occasional frustration that publishers don't spend enough money to improve their papers. Just before his death last year, I interviewed Tom Holbein, chairman of Belden Associates, the pioneering newspaper research firm. I asked him about the conflict between what readers want and what Wall Street wants. "The implied message of a lot of our research," he said, "is that to improve readership, to reverse the trend, you need better products and better promotion of those products. Both of them cost money."

I broached the same subject one afternoon with Greg Martire, of the research firm Clark, Martire and Bartolomeo, at his office in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. Martire stretched his legs out in front of him, tilted his head up toward the ceiling, and said, almost with a sigh, "How many more surveys do we have to do in which people say they want more local news before we give it to them?" When I asked whether he saw even the tiniest groundswell of support for spending more money to give readers more value, he paused a moment and then said, "No. What you more often get is like the L.A. Times saying, 'We're going to give you more local news and we're going to get rid of 200 people who cover it.' I don't know how they're going to do that."

While newspaper research has been around for decades, its recent growth--and its clout within the industry--is notable. In 1977, researchers founded their own trade organization, the Newspaper Research Council, with a membership of 75. Today, that group's successor organization, the Research Federation of the Newspaper Association of America, has more than 450 members, mostly newspaper staff researchers. Ten years ago, hardly any paper under 100,000 circulation had an in-house research specialist or commissioned serious market surveys. Today, Belden says one of its newest clients is an independently owned paper with a circulation of only 15,000. A readership study these days can cost anywhere from $10,000 to $500,000 or more, depending on its sophistication and the size and complexity of the market. A few of the country's largest papers now spend between $1 million and $2 million a year on market research--not much by the standards of some industries, but a big increase for newspapers.

When researchers gather at conferences and conventions, a recurring question is, "How can we get the newsroom to buy into what we're doing?" Researchers work hard to gain the respect of all the major departments of a newspaper, because these are their "internal clients." But editorial departments often present a special problem. After all, a researcher's conclusions may validate a paper's traditional editorial judgment and values, or challenge and undermine them.

This challenge became apparent to journalists about 20 years ago. This was a time of fear in the newspaper industry. Some major papers--especially afternoon papers--were failing, and daily readership had been in decline since the mid-'60s. At a 1981 convention of newspaper publishers, Ted Turner, whose Cable News Network was then celebrating its first birthday, predicted that "newspapers as we know them today will be gone within the next 10 years, or certainly...serving a very reduced role.... You're becoming very rapidly technologically obsolete." Words like "dinosaur" and "survival" were beginning to enter our common parlance.

In 1979, Ruth Clark of the research firm Yankelovich, Skelly & White had published a report so influential that two decades later it is still being cited. It was called "Changing Needs of Changing Readers," and in it Clark wrote, "Is there a communications gap between editors and readers? The overriding conclusion of this research is that there is indeed a gap--and a serious one at that." She thought the problem was, at least in part, due to "the mind-set in the newsroom" and the feeling among readers "that newspapers are slow to change." Her solution was to find out through focus groups and other means what readers really do want. She thought they wanted newspapers to be better organized, easier to read and more useful to people in their daily lives.

Many of her ideas were put to use by Al Neuharth, then chairman of Gannett, when in 1982 he launched USA Today, a striking editorial departure said to have been based on the most thorough market research ever performed on behalf of a newspaper.

Neuharth was blunt in his assessments of what readers wanted. And to many journalists, this didn't seem to include serious news. In a speech to ASNE, he declared that when it came to national and world affairs, "Coffeyville, Kansas, Muskogee, Oklahoma, they don't give a damn; the less they hear about Washington and New York the better they feel about it." He heaped contempt on more traditional competitors; in his autobiography, "Confessions of an S.O.B.," he wrote of "the blue-blood owners of the New York Times and the Washington Post" and said he "really didn't expect 'Punch' Sulzburger [sic] or Kay Graham to do anything very bold or risky" because they lacked "guts." This being the same Arthur Sulzberger who printed the Pentagon Papers, the same Katharine Graham who ran such risks publishing Woodward and Bernstein's Watergate stories.

The more Neuharth belittled reporters and editors--declaring that newspaper writers "saw their jobs more as essayists than as reporters" and that "we never designed USA Today for journalists. We were after readers"--the more it felt like an assault on the basic values of the trade. But because Neuharth and Gannett had poured millions into readership research, and because USA Today was gaining readers as other papers lost them, many journalists heeded Neuharth's pronouncements.

In so doing, they overlooked the fact that in most cities, the papers that survived or dominated tended to be those most invested in serious news--papers like the Washington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, Boston Globe and Los Angeles Times. Also underemphasized was the consistent research finding that the most-read portion of a newspaper is the most serious one, the A-section.

In fact, many of Neuharth's claims about the wants and desires of readers were patently at odds with what research has always shown. In just about every major survey ever conducted, for instance, national and world news are among people's top concerns. In a highly regarded national survey done in 1997 by Clark, Martire and Bartolomeo, 71 percent of those polled said they were either extremely interested or very interested in world and national news. The only news interests that ranked higher were local news, investigations of important issues, and news about the weather.

Or take the young USA Today's ironclad adherence to short, easy-to-read stories--"facts rather than endless prose," as Neuharth once expressed it. Here was an innovation that infiltrated countless mainstream dailies, but research shows it to be a dubious one. (In fact, as USA Today became a more serious paper in recent years, it backed off of its original policy on story length.)

Deanne Termini is president of Belden Associates, which conducts about 60 newspaper studies a year and is the longest-established newspaper research firm in the country. She says that in Belden's experience about 10 percent of those questioned have always said stories were too long, about 10 percent have said they were too short, and about 80 percent have said it wasn't much of an issue.

Greg Martire has come to believe there's no way to generalize about story length, so he never puts a question about it in a survey unless the client twists his arm. "How long should a story be? Well, it should stop when it gets boring," he says, "and that depends on the story and how well-written it is."

Thirteen years ago, Christine Urban of Urban & Associates, a leading research and consulting firm, wrote a short essay for the ASNE Bulletin. It was called "10 Myths About Readers," and one of the myths was this: "Stories must be short and easy to read." In fact, Urban wrote, all of her company's experience had shown that "important news stories should be long, less important ones should be short."

"This seems a blinding glimpse of the obvious," she wrote, "and it is. Readers pay for and expect good editing in their newspaper, and a part of their definition of a good editor is one who knows what the news priorities should be.... Simplistic 'rules' about maximum story inches or minimum story count violate reader expectations."

I called Urban, read a bit of her old article back to her, and asked if her point still stood. "For 24 years we've been finding this," she said, "and I can't imagine why it isn't obvious."

But, I persisted, if the research is so obvious, why would there be these "myths" about readers? And why would Gannett and Belden draw such different conclusions about story length?

"Well," she said, "you've stumbled on a metaphysical question that you're trying to answer on deadline."

OK. Here's another ambiguous issue--the matter of jumps. Deanne Termini says that, while people have complained for years about not being able to find jumps, this may not mean they oppose jumps per se. "We're not really sure that jumps--if they're easier to find--discourage readers," she says.

The Dallas Morning News was a pioneer in avoiding jumps. According to Burl Osborne, "We at one point here, in the '70s I guess, had a no-jump rule off page one. You couldn't jump off page one. The fact is, it made page one very dull. And very inactive. And the system always circumvents that, so we created these fake jumps. You would end the story on page one and you'd have a 'refer' to another story on page eight, and on page eight you'd have basically a one-paragraph pickup into the jump. And so--no jump, well maybe--but it was clear that was an artifice to get around the rule." Around 1980 the News scrapped its no-jump policy.

Today, virtually every paper that does limit jumps compromises the policy in the way Osborne describes. Gannett publishes detailed editorial guidelines for its newspapers, and on the subject of jumps they say: "Severely limit or eliminate jumps because readers don't follow them." But the rules go on to say: "Use billboard stories and other similar techniques instead of jumps to give readers the essential news and impact of a story on page one, and then direct them to in-depth coverage inside the newspaper that expands on the page one report."

It's unclear whether readers follow simple jumps more or less willingly than they follow jumps disguised as refers. Research seems to be silent on this question.

Butch Ward, managing editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, says, "Like everybody else, we've talked to people about jumps, and we've heard people say they don't like jumps. But we've heard significant numbers of people say things like, 'I like jumps. Jumps always take me to a story I wouldn't have read otherwise.' Or they say, 'That's the way I go back through the paper. I see jumps, I read them.'

"So are jumps good or are jumps bad? Jumps are jumps."

In the semi-darkness of a small viewing room, Jennifer Files and three of her newsroom colleagues sit facing a large glass wall--actually a one-way mirror that lets them see out but prevents those on the other side from seeing in. Files and her friends are peering through this magic window at a group of nine men and women, gathered at a table, discussing the pros and cons of the Dallas Morning News. Only, mainly, it's the cons. These nine people have been invited here because (A) they said they were interested in local news, and (B) they said they weren't satisfied with how the News covers it. Now that they're being prodded and probed by a moderator, and being paid $50 a person for their opinions, they aren't bashful about giving them.

Files has never seen a focus group before. She is a young business reporter, well groomed and smartly dressed the way business reporters tend to be, especially in a fashion-conscious place like Dallas, and she's clearly proud of the acclaim the News' business section has received in journalistic circles. But, who are these people? They have such strong opinions, some of them, and yet they seem so ill-informed about the paper and how it works.

"We're not getting enough information about what's happening in the Dallas business community," says a man in his 50s named Herb, who has described himself as a serious consumer of news who hates TV and listens to public radio.

A guy in a knitted shirt named Fred agrees with Herb. There's not enough space in the paper for business news.

Begging to differ, Files, behind the mirror, turns to the woman next to her, Berta Delgado, a religion reporter, and says, "We've got the biggest newshole in the country!"

But Fred isn't finished yet. Now he's saying he thinks the business section has no regular reporters, that it just uses interns. This elicits a gasp from Files, followed a couple minutes later by another when Fred, on a roll, says, "The business report, as far as I'm concerned, they might as well delete it."

Delgado leans over, in sympathy, and says, "You're getting hammered."

Files isn't the only one. Walt Stallings, the assistant managing editor for metro news, is also in the doghouse. Nearly all the focus group participants have complained that the local report is "unbalanced," that it has too much gruesome crime news and not enough "good news." This, they feel, is because "good news doesn't sell" and "the police blotter is easy to report."

"There are a lot of kids out there, they never see anything good. They need that," says Fred.

"Role model stuff," says a 40-ish woman named Jenny.

"Yeah," says Fred, "role model stuff."

They egg each other on. When Cherie Sion, the moderator, an energetic woman in dark slacks and blazer, asks what kind of good news they're talking about, someone mentions a story he read about Eagle Scouts. Someone recalls a small business that succeeded against the odds. Someone else mentions a feature story about the zoo.

Jenny steers the conversation to politics. She wants more opposing points of view in the paper's election coverage, and more about the schools, and the state reps, and the city council. She wants her councilwoman interviewed, and not just when sensational issues or scandals arise but on a routine basis. "No one's covering city hall, I feel."

This energizes Fred, who declares, "The Dallas Morning News has never, ever challenged the established authority. Mayor Kirk could rob a bank and I guarantee you, you'd never hear about it in the Dallas Morning News." He is waving his arms as he says this.

A guy named Mike, who rates the paper's local coverage a "four" on a scale of one to 10, says the Metro section "does a pretty good job of covering lots of special areas of the community. Not enough depth, though." He also thinks the Metro section lacks character. "It's a catch-all section," he says.

By now, in the gloom behind the mirror, people are loosening their ties and chewing on their eyeglass frames. Jennifer Files has emptied a pack of M&Ms on the desktop in front of her and is absent-mindedly rolling them around. Eventually, gallows humor breaks out.

Stallings, the metro AME, has a starched executive look about him--business suit, white shirt, conservative haircut--and a bone-dry sense of humor that's very effective in the present circumstances. "I'm going to work for Payless Shoes," he says. Then he wonders how he'll report this session back to his staff. He decides to tell them, "Metro is all the news that won't go anywhere else." This breaks up Steve Harris, an assistant metro editor.

Stallings says, "I'm going to do a story about some Eagle Scouts that start a small business."

Delgado says, "At the zoo."

Through the looking glass, people continue to complain. It's a damn shame the Dallas Times Herald went out of business, it was so much more balanced and fair. If anyone in the focus group disagrees with the prevailing sentiments, he keeps it to himself. In fact, as the evening wears on, the voices of Fred, Mike and to some extent Jenny seem to grow more dominant.

The talk turns to a recent scandal involving the mayor's wife, who allegedly profited from a new $230 million sports arena. At least half the members of the group think the Observer, Dallas' alternative weekly, covered the stories about it better than the Morning News did. In Fred's opinion, the News didn't write about it at all.

Yet, as Stallings reminds everyone behind the mirror, "We broke all those stories."
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