Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Job 1 for newspapers: Audience development

While strategic audience development ought to be the top priority at every newspaper, efforts toward fulfilling this vital mission are fitful and far between at many publications. This has got to change, if the industry intends to sustain its strength. 

The bad news for newspapers, as discussed here, is that a significant majority of the adults in the typical community don’t subscribe to the paper in either its print or digital incarnations. But the flip side of this problem is that the abundant population of non-readers in every community represents a substantial base of potential consumers for the transformative and delightful new products that publishers could bring to market – if they put their minds to it. 

For the avoidance of doubt, a static, iPad-friendly PDF of the day’s print edition does not, IMHO, qualify as a transformative and satisfying digital product. 

It’s not that newspapers neglect audience building. They don’t. But their outreach is aimed almost exclusively at capturing the increasingly rare customer who reliably pays for print or digital access for months, if not years, on end. Those are great customers and any business would be glad to have them.  

But the population of steadfast loyalists is dwindling, as modern consumers take advantage of the digital media to customize the news, entertainment and information they ingest. Given shifting consumer preferences, newspapers need to think differently, if not to say obsessively, about how to serve – and profit – from individuals who don’t look, think or behave like traditional subscribers. Unfortunately, most newspapers don’t. 

Here’s why they should: 

:: Falling readership. Since peaking at 63.3 million subscribers in 1994 (the year before the Internet entered the public consciousness), weekday newspaper circulation today is 38 million to 43 million, as detailed here. Back in 1994, 63.5% of American households subscribed to newspapers, according to an analysis of census data. Today, barely one in three homes take a newspaper.

Rising competition. Modern consumers are hooked on the power conferred by the digital media to pick and choose what, where, when and how they get news and other information. The Pew Research Center last year found that two-thirds of Americans visited upwards of three or more outlets to keep up with current events. Twenty percent of urban dwellers accessed six or more news sources, while 11% of rural residents consulted half a dozen or more sources. 

Demographic drift. Most young consumers simply don’t dig newspapers, leaving publishers with ever-older audiences that eventually will age to extinction. The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University earlier this year reported that 55% of individuals under the age of 35 preferred the digital media as their primary news source, as compared with 5% in the same age category who preferred print. 

Because there is no reason to believe these trends are likely to reverse, publishers hoping to sustain and reinvigorate their valuable franchises need to concentrate on finding new products and services to attract the readers they need – and the advertisers they want. 

Newspapers can create transformative and delightful products across the growing range of digital platforms by leveraging their unmatched content-creation capabilities, vast archives, unrivaled local marketing power and the deep commercial relationships they possess in each of the communities they serve. 

What audiences? What products? What platforms? 

The answers to those vexing questions will be revealed only after publishers invest the time and money necessary to develop thoughtful strategic plans that take into account local market conditions, the competitive forces arrayed around them, and the unique strengths and weaknesses of their respective organizations. Equipped with well-wrought strategic plans, publishers can invest wisely and confidently in opportunities to attract new audiences and revenue streams.

As mission-critical as strategic planning and audience building ought to be, these missions fail to be accorded the priority they deserve at many newspapers. Some newspapers delegate “audience” to the editor, who somehow is supposed to fix things by intuitively producing the “right” sort of content.  Some publishers assign audience development to the circulation manager, who somehow is supposed to boost subscriptions while curbing cancellations. Some papers allocate audience development to the marketing department, whose staffing, research and/or promotional budgets often are the first to be cut in moments of financial distress. At many newspapers, these missions aren’t even explicitly on the radar at all. 

When the development of transformative and delightful products is left largely to chance, the outcome is unlikely to be auspicious, because successful innovations seldom emerge from seat-of-the pants hunches, scattered responsibilities and episodic tactical skirmishes. 

Success requires a well-researched, well-conceived, well-articulated and well-communicated strategic plan that is the responsibility of everyone in the building. At most newspapers, this approach not only would be transformative but also would make life more delightful than it has been in years.

© 2013 Editor & Publisher


Blogger Unknown said...

Love your blog and look forward to every post, but this one inspired a big fat, "Duh." How about some specifics about what should be done?

5:25 AM  
Blogger MAC said...

Even if the topic of this entry seems rather obvious, it's a reminder that newspaper companies need to hear.

Whether you agree or disagree with paywalls, that initiative has essentially been the only meaningful thing that the industry has launched in the past 1.5-2 years.

Where are the new sites aimed at reaching a (somewhat) younger audience? Where are the new apps that are more than some guy's small little side project, or more than aggregating and displaying newspaper content in a slightly different way?

The time for innovation and new products is now, but most newspapers have been content with only the launch of their paywalls -- which, as Alan says, only serves the narrowing population of old-school subscribers.

10:54 AM  
Blogger SE Calgary News said...

I rarely disagree with you, but this is one of those times.

Job 1 is monetizing online readers. If newspapers can't figure out how to generate revenue, they're toast.

Postmedia in Canada is a case in point. Every few months a publisher writes a piece in which he brags about how their online readership is growing exponentially. Then their quarterly financial statements come out and the company has lost money again. Postmedia paid $700 million for Canwest's papers a few years ago; its market cap is now about $60 million.

Here's a different idea: How about newspapers have a smaller but better readership? What if they concentrated on building a readership that advertisers would pay a premium to access?

Quality, not quantity. A radical idea for newspaper managers, but something they might want to consider.

5:52 PM  
Blogger Alain Castonguay said...

I don't know if one of your readers or yourself had the chance to take a look of what's going on with daily newspaper La Presse in Montreal (published in French). For the last 6 months, they're offering a free version of the newspaper for iPad, including videos, more photos and animation, and exclusive stuff. It's called LaPresse+ and it's publishing society, Gesca (subsidiary of Power Corporation), has spent many millions of dollars for 3 years before launching the product.
We have an iPad at home, and I'm still a subscriber for Saturday printed edition and daily online (on PressReader). I'm 51 y-o, and a reporter myself. It seems that they manage to get some free subscribers who have no interest in daily newspaper. They clearly want to stop offering a printed version of La Presse someday. I don't know and they don't tell how much they're getting some revenues from advertising.

6:08 AM  
Blogger SE Calgary News said...

Alain, that's interesting. They spend millions of dollars to snag a few online readers, now they don't know if they're generating revenue from the effort? And we wonder why newspapers are failing....

2:23 PM  
Blogger Benjamin Cole said...

Interesting post.

My take is that newspapers need to have bloggers, a lot of them, who combo blogging with reporting, A city hall blogger-news guy. Lot of work. But a daily blog from City Hall, the Dodgers, the real estate scene, what have you. Yes, the bloggers have to be clever on top of everything else. Pictures too.

But readers like to post comments, and see their comments, and get a reaction from the writer. More work.

In the past, newspapers have been imperious towards many readers, barely publishing letters to the editor. Now, every letter should be published online (except for truly repulsive letters that offend etc) and all the comments etc. Stories suggested by readers should be followed up and even touted.

At best, readers can become the investigators and informative arm of a newspaper. Imagine you have 100 people in government looking for news, for you. Or in many private organizations.

My other idea is that newspaper should give large tablets to subscribers, that are dedicated to the newspaper's website. Cheaper than delivering a paper everyday.

7:13 PM  
Blogger Arman said...

My daily read is a PDF of The New York Times. You dismiss PDFs of the daily newspaper, but I do think they're one of several ways of reading the news. I like the look of a traditional newspaper, with headlines, graphics, ads but I also like the convenience of my iPad. Having a PDF of a traditional newspaper is a MUST in my view for newspapers. (A couple years ago, The Times discontinued the PDF for about a month, and it took begging, pleas and many emails to multiple people on my part, and probably by others as well, to have this restored.)

9:36 AM  

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