I also can't help but recall perhaps the best known line from one of Bob Dylan's most popular early songs, "Subterranean Homesick Blues": "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows."
Beginning decades before the steep circulation declines newspapers have been experiencing since the turn of the Millennium, the industry started turning to "weathermen" in the form of research companies like Belden Associates, Yankelovich and Market & Opinion Research International (MORI) to tell us which way the winds of reader content interests were blowing.
Unfortunately, too many media companies and individual newspapers began relying more and more exclusively on readership survey findings as the sole gauge of reader content interests rather than talking and listening directly to their readers. This, I believe, is where and why the disconnect between newspapers and their readers began to take serious root.
Some like to say that it came rather precipitously as the nation's economy began to slip into recession starting in about 2005 and that the economic downturn, coupled with other factors -- such a expanding free website access to information that papers once sold exclusively in print, already declining advertising revenues and rising production costs -- created a "perfect storm" for newspapers.
Certainly, those perfect-storm factors may have set off the industry's panic alarms, but I think the clouds began gathering much earlier than 2005. In fact, I believe the readership barometer may have already been starting to drop when I began my first, post-college, full-time newspaper job as a reporter in the Indiana Bureau of The Louisville Courier-Journal & Times in 1970.
Whenever I ponder a newspaper's content relationship with its readers, I remember what my favorite journalism professor at Indiana University, Dr. Ron Farrar, who taught courses in in-depth and investigative reporting, once told me: "You earn the right to give readers the information YOU think they need to know by first giving them the information THEY actually want to know."
Farrar always emphasized the idea that content is the key to readership and I think it would hard find anyone in the newspaper industry who would disagree with that, then or now.
The questions, however, are how should we determine what sort of content attracts readers to buy newspapers and who should make that determination.
By the time I took my first full-time job many newspapers companies had already seemingly decided to turn that task over almost exclusively to the companies that conduct scientific readership interest surveys to determine what sort of content readers find most appealing.
While I believe such surveys are a great tool and do provide valuable information about readers and their interests, I don't think that information should be blindly accepted as gospel nor should it be the dictator of content. I say this, in part, because most readership survey questionnaires are more theoretical than practical. I also believe that when people provide answers to formal surveys, they aren't always honest and give answers they think the researchers want to hear or that they think will make them sound more intelligent and thoughtful. The same thing, I believe, is true when it comes to relying too heavily on formally assembled focus groups.
Editors who really want to know what readers and potential readers read in their newspapers need to get out of the office, go where people are and talk to them informally and actually listen to what they are saying.
Editors also need to realize that their best and staunchest ally in understanding what sort of content appeals to readers in their market is their newspapers' circulation director.
I don't know how many times over the years I heard many of my fellow newspapers editors pompously and erroneously say: "It's not my job to sell newspapers. It's my job to inform the public. Selling papers is the circulation director's job."
Well, one of the industry's biggest problems is that far too many editors have done a great job of not selling newspapers and have failed to realize the paper that doesn't sell also doesn't do a very good job of informing the public. As bluntly as I can put it, it's my opinion that at a this critical time in the life of the industry, any editor who doesn't sell newspapers shouldn't be the editor for very long.
If content truly is the key to selling a newspaper, there are a number of things you can do to determine what sort of content actually attracts buyers. This is where both getting out of the office to talk to real people, real readers, in their natural habitat and a good working relationship with your paper's circulation director come in.
Throughout my 30+ years as an editor, I made a habit of identifying popular local breakfast spots that had a good mix of customers from laborers to professionals and executives. Then, at least once a month, I would stop in early (always at a different restaurant), get breakfast and look for people who where reading my newspaper, with the understanding that if they had a paper at the restaurant, they probably picked it up as an impulse, single-copy buy from a vending machine. I would politely approach the cafe readers, introduce myself and ask them why they had purchased the paper, what story or stories might have attracted them to make the buy and why that story or those stories had grabbed their interest. Although I would sometimes be told the paper was purchased for inside content -- particularly sports -- the majority of cafe readers I talked to over the years would cite a particular front page story as the reason for that morning's buy.
And what sort of stories most frequently fueled the single-copy impulse buy? Except for the occasional really big national or international story -- such as 9-11 or the killing of Osama Bin Laden -- it was usually a local hard (usually breaking and/or developing) news or investigative story. There's an old saying that "if it bleeds it leads." And, like it or not, it is still those sorts of stories that grab the single-copy buyer by the labels and give him or her a shake, not the story about the city's new multi-bazillion dollar sewer project -- unless of course the angle on THAT story is that the mayor's brother-in-law got the job on a no-bid contract.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying you should take a mediocre story, sensationalize it and slap it on Page 1, like some grocery store tabloid, just to appeal to the prurient interests. However, you should understand that a really good, hard-hitting story given strong play above the fold on the front does draw in readers and sells papers.
Another way to learn what sorts of stories appeal to readers in your market is to work with your paper's circulation director who maintains loads of data on home-delivery and single-copy sales. Of these, the most important to use in determining what sorts of stories really attract readers are the single-copy numbers. Any good circulation director will readily tell you that the person most likely to be converted into a home-delivery buyer is the one who makes frequent single copy buys and can be convinced that it's a lot cheaper and easier to have the paper tossed on the front lawn every morning than having to run around town -- particularly on a Sunday -- and find one in a circulation vending machine.
Get your circulation director to provide you numbers that show when single copy sales jumped and then look at the papers for those days and inspect and think about the front page stories and how they were played. Doing so will tell you a lot about types of stories that get people to read your paper.
At the last several papers where I was editor, I had clear plastic sleeves installed on the wall of the news department conference room so that either a week's or two weeks' worth of the above-the-fold portion the newspaper could be displayed. Then, I asked the circulation director to have the single copy manager post the sales figures for each of those day's papers plus the numbers for the corresponding day of the previous year. By inspecting those postings, I and everyone else who attended the daily news budget meetings could see what was and wasn't selling on the street, based on the type of content and it's front-page play.
Granted, if you follow the lead of what the single-copy sales numbers tell you, you are occasionally going to get calls from irate readers who accuse you of "only trying to sell newspapers." But, let's face you're already getting those calls -- even if you don't pay attention to single copy sales -- every time you run a story that some readers find offensive for whatever reason. I don't know how many times over the years I've had angry callers hurl the "you only ran that story to sell newspapers" accusation at me over a story buried inside the local section where it had absolutely no impact on sales.
Keep in mind that even though such calls might cause your blood pressure to spike, they come from people who have at least bothered scoop your paper off the front lawn and read it. And having people read your paper is a good thing, even if they seem to do so only because they need something to piss them off in the morning.
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