Newspapers should strive for an emotional connection with readers to thrive in the years ahead, according to a consultant with a national research firm.
Bill Day, executive director of Frank N. Magid Associates, Inc., spoke to editors at the annual APME conference in Indianapolis on Tuesday. He said his studies show that 40 percent of people still read newspapers and that the industry needs to leverage what is left of circulation to build for the future. Day said television news is successful because they do a better job of listening to what viewers want.
"The most important reason people pick ABC versus NBC versus CBS isn't because they think they're very good. It's not because they need to know the weather. Yet why do viewers still watch their local television news? It's because they have a strong, visceral relationship with the product."
If newspapers did more of what readers wanted, sales would go up. On his list of things to do:
· Provide even more depth to its news stories
· More about local activities and things to do
· More local coverage in the main section
· Give them opinions they want to read
"You know who people think is doing a really good job?" asked Day. "Judge Judy. What job are consumers hiring her to do? To look in on others amazingly train-wrecked lives and say my life's not that bad." Judge Judy delivers on expectation, Day said, and the show makes $78 million annually.
Day says his company's studies find similar responses across markets.
"We do this same study in market after market, and the results are amazingly consistent," he said.
He called on newspapers to make "data-driven" choices about what goes into the paper. He said newspapers often make the mistake of using data derived from a small percentage of readers; those who are the most vocal.
Day claimed his goal was to not only look at those who felt strongly one way or the other about how a newspaper was doing, he also wanted to look at the all of the people who were undecided in order to get a real sense of what the entire market looked like.
"We don't want find people who are excited, we want to find everyone else," said Day.
The theme of the session was to focus primarily on the print product and how to extend its life, because Magid's research showed that 40 percent of all demographics are still reading the paper.
The consistent example used throughout was that of the soda industry. "When people like the soda you make, you need to tell them you have it and keep making it," said Day.
This was especially true when it came to small-market papers, where readers in his study said that they wanted more local content, such as high school and collegiate sports as well as local lifestyle. Small-market papers have an advantage because of the lack of options available. Sixty-one percent of people polled in small markets said that it would be a huge loss if the paper in their area were to disappear.
Justin Rumbach, managing editor of the Dubois County Herald in Jasper, is also seeing this at his paper. "I think that we don't see the decline nearly as rapidly as the big metro papers because we still reach a huge portion of our community with our print product," said Rumbach.
Day also looked at other media industries, such as television news, and their approach to marketing.
"Television news shows have a relentless goal of moving the needle (of viewers) to evaluate success," said Day.
Using this example, he said newspapers should consider evaluating reporters based on how much traffic their stories get, and using this information to guide budget meetings that take place in newsrooms every day.
Local research could help newspapers better understand reader interests.
"We need to use predictive metrics that will help us understand how our readers feel about stories" we might cover, said Day. "Just because you think it's important doesn't mean that it is."
Besides editorial decision making, analytics could also be used to help with design, distribution and advertising.
Layout analytics can be used to guide front-page design, for example.
"People don't read the newspaper, they scan it," said Day. "Stories must be presented visually."
Identifying new audiences is important, but newspapers should especially target those who have recently stopped subscribing within the last couple of years, he said.
"You need to know about people who are no longer engaging with your paper and why."
The plight of the media is an important story, but Day said newspapers may have gone too far in covering their own troubles.
"Television never tells people that their numbers are down from the previous year," he said.
"My pitch is always that [some] papers love to report how poorly they are doing, which I think is a terribly stupid thing to do, for one," said Rumbach. "And two, that is not true in our area."