AJR  Features
From AJR,   December/January 2004

Why Do People Read Newspapers?   

A massive research effort by the NAA- and ASNE-backed Readership Institute endeavored to find out. Now newspapers are heeding some of the findings in an effort to reverse the persistent circulation slide.

By Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) 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.


Related reading:
   » What They Like

You wouldn't necessarily think that Cheré Coen, with 20 years of newspaper experience plus a stint at a magazine's Web site, would find herself writing briefs, plugs and promos most days, with maybe the future of newspapers riding on her work.

Luring readers through teasers and tidbits makes up a central part of Coen's job as "readership editor" of the 70,000-circulation Bakersfield Californian.

In this relatively new but hot newsroom role, Coen, 42, considers her goal "to build readership--to reach the people who aren't reading us and to keep the people who are reading us reading." The job entails everything from crafting snappy promotional ads to writing daily news summaries to supervising the newspaper's "real people" reporter to lobbying for what she sees as readers' concerns in editorial and marketing meetings.

Across the country, Stacy Lynch chases the same goal at the 420,000-circulation Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

"What we're here to do is figure out how we can get more people reading the newspaper more often," echoes Lynch.

Lynch, 30, now the paper's "director of innovations," was her paper's readership editor for the past year. She brings a special qualification to her work. Before joining the newspaper last year, she belonged to the Readership Institute 12-member team carrying out a multiyear, multimillion dollar research onslaught that has touched off the most massive assault ever on the newspaper business' nagging problem--declining readership. It is the latest change-inducing campaign for an industry seeking to outrun obsolescence.

The goal is no less than to crack journalism's riddle for the ages: What makes people read newspapers?

Already the research project has amassed what Scott Bosley, executive director of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, calls "the biggest gold mine of data we've ever had," including interviews with more than 37,000 people and an online trove of more than 70 reports, studies and presentations.

Gleanings from the gold mine give newspapers a lot to worry about. But researchers and editors are framing them into the heartening central message that the persistent readership slide can be reversed, and certain steps can help.

That call-to-action is sending changes rippling through newsrooms from Atlanta to Bakersfield, as hundreds of papers mobilize to apply the new intelligence. They are cramming in community news, adding "ordinary people" beats, juicing up promotion, and moving beyond the newsroom to upgrade their service and management.

As they act, they are underlining some uneasy issues. How do newspapers balance cheap fixes and long-term reform? Is interesting the public compatible with serving the public interest? In the rush toward reader friendliness, what role remains for time-honored but often unsettling watchdog reporting?

The massive research can't answer all these questions, but it does identify and offer specific advice toward "four cornerstones of readership growth":

* providing excellent customer service

* improving editorial and advertising content

* building recognition and loyalty through stronger brand promotion

* reforming management and culture.

Many of the findings are predictable. Better content, especially community news, brings in readers. Variety helps. Service greatly affects readership (people aren't likely to subscribe if the paper doesn't arrive, or shows up late or wet). Newspapers need to improve how they're run and become more open to change. (See "What They Like" for more detailed findings.)

"None of this is shocking," says Julia Wallace, editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "It is stuff we all know but in various ways and at various times we get away from."

Other conclusions are surprising if not shocking. The most vital step of all, the research says, may be making the paper easier to use; however, contemporary touches such as more attractive design, extensive use of color and informational graphics matter less than heavy promotion and easy-to-understand organization. Advertising and service sometimes outrank editorial content in luring readers. Readers want shorter stories in some cases (about weather), but longer ones in others (about science and technology); fewer stories on some topics (crime), but more on others (community activities, lifestyles, global relations and "how we are governed").

The research encourages more narrative-style writing, more awareness of how ads help draw readers to editorial content, and special attention to attracting readers who are young, African American or Hispanic.

Perhaps the most noticeable single theme is optimism. While full of sobering data and often critical of newspapers, the studies are strikingly upbeat. The project's kickoff report in the spring of 2001, the first of dozens, signaled the tone with this opening declaration: "The study shows that forces outside newspapers' control--such as the explosion of competition, a perceived lack of consumers' free time, and demographic changes--are dwarfed by the things that newspapers can control."

As a result, says ASNE's Bosley, "The most important thing is turning people's heads to believe they can actually do things, have impact and grow readership."

ASNE President Peter Bhatia agrees. "The headline is that the research shows us that declining readership does not have to be inevitable. There are things we can do."

But Bhatia, who is executive editor of Portland's Oregonian, recognizes that stressing teasers, micro-local items and featury writing can turn the spotlight away from traditional First Amendment concerns. "Some of the notions," he acknowledges, "don't line up with what our ideals are for good journalism."

Still, Bhatia and other editors contend that the research as a whole supports solid, serious reporting.

Atlanta's Stacy Lynch says readers want important stories as long as they are presented interestingly and clearly. "I think this naturally includes looking at the public interest," she says. She quotes another researcher as saying that watchdog journalism "is like being accurate...it's the price of admission. Without it, no amount of innovation will make any difference."

Bakersfield's Cheré Coen offers an example of combining serious journalism with reader-friendly presentation. When the Justice Department opened an investigation of local police, Coen says, "we ran a lead story on our front page but also included three breakout boxes that explained what had happened and what it means in a nutshell."

"I don't think this is some sort of magic bullet," says Californian Executive Editor Mike Jenner. "If you follow the rules here but fall down in your commitment to aggressive journalism, then you'll fail. You have to do both. We define our brand by the kind of journalism we practice. Newspapers that go soft--I don't know if they're dead, but that is the wrong way to go. We have to perform our obligations to citizens."

Editor Randolph D. Brandt of the Journal Times in Racine, Wisconsin, believes fervently in applying the readership research; in fact, he wrote an entire master's thesis on how to do it. "There is a danger of going soft," he agrees. But he adds, "There's lots to recommend the watchdog role and public-service journalism in the Readership Institute's findings."

He cites, for example, research showing that civic involvement is "a brand factor related to increased readership." Readers say they want a paper that "looks out for my interests." The reports also relate higher readership to the belief that a paper is "a leader in the community," one that "makes me think," and one that keeps readers "informed about the world and the nation."

"We interpreted that to mean tackling meaningful stories," says Brandt, noting that his paper this year won the state's top public service reporting award for examining the need for a new regional sewer plant.

"The overall message," says Mary Nesbitt, the Readership Institute's managing director, is that readers want "a good mix of content, from Big-J journalism to the Jumble puzzle."

The Readership Institute was born in 1999 at Northwestern University. It is sponsored by ASNE and the Newspaper Association of America and bankrolled by the latter, amid worries about lagging circulation, trouble with attracting young readers and other competitive problems. NAA figures show that daily newspaper reading has steadily declined from 78 percent of adults in 1970 to 55 percent last year. Among 18-to-24-year-olds, only 41 percent read a daily paper.

According to the NAA, about $8 million has been spent on the project since 1999, and another $4 million is allocated for the next two years. The centerpiece was a study of 37,000 consumers in 100 newspaper markets, along with a content analysis of tens of thousands of stories. In 2001, the institute presented the first major results, trumpeting them as an action plan, and it has followed with a nonstop cascade of studies, analyses and guides.

And newspapers have tuned in. The research has created such a buzz that Nesbitt estimates hundreds of papers are making changes based on it. They are being spurred in part by a $450,000 ASNE project to conduct 24 seminars around the country this year and next, focused on ways of applying the research.

Consider the rise of Stacy Lynch in Atlanta. After getting a B.A from Cornell in Spanish literature and English literature, she earned a master's in journalism from Northwestern and soon became research manager for the Readership Institute there. Following six years at Northwestern, Lynch moved from the airy realm of concept to the grittier pressures of influencing a newsroom. She spent a year as readership editor, then was promoted to director of innovations, a job that involves "understanding consumers and recognizing trends in the marketplace." She will supervise her replacement as readership editor.

One week found Lynch advising editors on redesigning the paper's home and garden section, then the marketing and advertising departments on how to launch and promote the new approach. For example, she took to heart research about how readers appreciate both ads and editorial content in such sections. They want the extra details ads bring, she says, such as where to find products, when they go on sale and what they look like.

Lynch also took time to speak to interns about readership ("what we know about how to get readers into the paper"), to work with reporters designing a public opinion survey about computer spam, and to help the head of the copy desk redesign some page-two digests and features.

This fall, she hosted a gathering of readership editors (she knows of four papers that use the exact title and about a dozen others with similar jobs), marketers and circulation managers. Lynch also waded into deeper matters: "starting to work on how we can make our Sunday newspaper serve readers better" and "working on how we cover very, very local news."

Indeed, the so-called "local-local" news issue looms over everything. In what may be the most attention-getting sentence in its voluminous data, the Readership Institute says, "Intensely local, people-centered news ranks at the top of the list of content items with the greatest potential to increase overall readership."

This includes such "chicken-dinner news" as community announcements, weddings, obituaries, stories about ordinary people and coverage of how news events affect ordinary people.

The Readership Institute offers a one-word answer to the question of what approach to such stories works best: "quantity."

In Bakersfield, the Californian has responded in several ways to the research, according to Coen and Executive Editor Jenner. Besides stronger promotion, Jenner says, the paper has added neighborhood beats, reoriented its Sunday business section toward personal finance, and given its Monday features pages a "how-to" theme. "How to beat a traffic ticket" drew special notice.

Around the nation, examples abound of companies and papers that have embraced the findings. For example, Scripps newspapers have applied them broadly, according to Mike Phillips, the company's editorial development director. Among the changes so far:

* Aligning beat structures with what Phillips calls "franchise issues--issues that are so central to readers' lives, the franchise depends on covering them well." They include schools, kids, family, health, local environment, local economy and leisure. As examples, he cites a new early childhood beat in Memphis, a juvenile justice beat in Ventura, a renewed commitment to covering religion and spirituality in Knoxville, Corpus Christi and at several Florida papers.

* Adding "chicken-dinner news," both in the paper and online. For example, the Rocky Mountain News in Denver created "Rocky Preps" on the Web "to give the community a place for news about the smallest of youth sports."

* Improving "navigation cues" that guide readers to features in the paper. "All of our papers are working on this, but Knoxville is the leader with prime real estate on Page 2A devoted to upcoming content and Web refers by the scores every day," Phillips says.

* Getting more serious about how newspapers are run and how they interact with the public. This year Scripps gathered top editorial, marketing and circulation executives for a "readership summit." Among other activities, the executives fanned out to interview regular people "not about newspapers, but about their lives." Now they are trying similar exercises in their own newsrooms to "better connect...with the people they serve."

One Scripps newspaper, the 39,000-circulation Anderson, South Carolina, Independent-Mail, has been among the most aggressive users of Readership Institute research.

According to Editor T. Wayne Mitchell, changes include adding a community calendar with an online component that readers can update; weekly "ordinary person" profiles in the business and lifestyle sections; increased ordinary people Q&A columns with photos and quotes; an interactive "sports talk" feature; a book club; a stronger obit section; and a health-improvement program for readers.

"We have learned," Mitchell says, "that there is no magic pill to increase readership. It takes patience, commitment and resources...and a management culture of total involvement."

At Randolph Brandt's Racine Journal Times, a 30,000-circulation Lee Enterprises paper, changes are under way in content, promotion, marketing and customer service.

"The Journal Times is a far more local, local newspaper now," Brandt says. For instance, it added a daily page of community listings, announcements and photos and remodeled the sports section to a more local focus.

What has the paper sacrificed? "We dropped a great deal of our police and court blotter in favor of scanning the blotter stuff for good stories," Brandt says. The paper also cut staff-written game stories on nearby pro teams, using wire stories instead and refocusing reporters on local coverage.

Racine also is pushing narrative writing.

The paper's coverage of a local apartment fire, for example, centered on the point of view of residents, including a woman who had been burned out of her home three times over her life and had lost her son to a truck fire. The goal, Brandt says, is "telling real stories through the eyes of people."

After two people were shot to death in a $300 tavern robbery in Racine, reporter Jeff Wilford provided a dramatic account, headlined "A day that changed many lives," of the before-and-after experiences of the suspect, the victims and their friends and relatives. The vantage points were those of ordinary people, not police or officials.

For all the attention, so far the readership research and the reaction to it seem to have generated little controversy among editors. But, beyond the question of public-service journalism, other concerns and possible weak spots exist. The research has very little to say, for instance, about potential for the Internet and multimedia journalism to increase or fragment readership--issues the researchers hope to pursue later.

And the initiative raises the specter of newspapers' operating by formula rather than editorial judgment and understanding local needs.

Atlanta's Julia Wallace insists most editors know better than to blindly apply the formula. If you sweep aside the tidal flow of data, she says, the basic message remains simple and vital: "The more all of us can pay attention to readers, the better off we are."

Wallace and others say they recognize there can be different, sometimes conflicting views about what serving readers means. They say the research should help, not dictate.

ASNE President Peter Bhatia points, for example, to coverage of state government, which he says "may not be sexy" but is expected by a "significant number" of readers. "If newspapers stop covering state government, then state government won't be covered." (State government coverage has declined sharply since the early 1990s, reports in AJR's Project on the State of the American Newspaper have shown.)

Says Bhatia, "Nobody's suggesting that we should ever walk away from our watchdog role. Most every newspaper has room to do both the high-end investigative reporting and the on-the-street community stuff."

Everyone involved cautions that it will take years to see whether the new research leads to a reversal of the disheartening circulation trend. But naturally they can't help looking for quick results. A Readership Institute study released this summer, for instance, concluded that "newspapers that put more emphasis on understanding and responding to consumers" were more likely to gain readers.

But the report tweaked papers for failing to move swiftly enough. "Newspapers are slowly becoming more reader-oriented, but are far from what they themselves consider to be an ideal level," it said.

A companion report called "Taking Action on Readership" lamented that only two of 33 chief recommendations "are being done intensely by the majority of papers" studied. Those two were "making day-to-day operational decisions based on what's good for readers and increasing emphasis on stories about community events."

Papers have moved more quickly on changing content and service than on reforming management. Bhatia says that isn't surprising, since changing how a workplace operates is complicated and time-consuming. "But," he adds, "I think papers are going to get around to them."

If the Readership Institute research is correct, the industry has a long way to go.

One survey, for example, asked employees about people management at their papers. It led to a report that seems blistering, at least by the comparatively tame conventions of research writing.

"The results were remarkable and surprising," the report said. "The overall scores were both extremely low and showed little variation among newspapers.... It is highly unlikely that there are many other industries in the U.S. today where, as a whole, they have a similarly low self-report in this area."

The report particularly urged newspapers to work on compensation and on career development, "a people management area in which the industry is notoriously weak."

Like others, Racine's Randolph Brandt acknowledges "it will probably take a long time to prove all this out." Still, he stays upbeat. "The research suggests these changes will result in better readership across the board, but particularly among younger people we need to capture to remain healthy in the long run," he says.

Brandt offers a bottom line that, if not quite as scholarly as his master's thesis, summarizes many editors' reaction to the vast readership project: "Most of the snake oil," he says, "seems pretty good for what ails you."

At ground level in Bakersfield, Readership Editor Cheré Coen has an even simpler outlook. "I'm basically following the research," she says, "and hoping it works."