Friday, August 21, 2009

Where's the reader value in your publication?

By John C. Peterson
The Peterson Group

I visit an afternoon daily in New York state that fills its parking lot and both sides of the street with people who get out of their cars even on the most bitter winter day to get the paper as soon it comes off the press.

At another client in New England, I was troubled by what I felt was a lop-sided ratio of newsstand versus paid subscribers for what I felt was a very strong weekly paper.

I couldn't believe more people weren't committed to the paper. The publisher said it puzzled the staff until they collected some feedback from telemarketers. Despite twice the cost and the inconvenience, a significant percentage of readers did not want to wait a half-day for mail delivery. Sure enough, drive around town you'd see people waiting at stores for the delivery truck.

Both of these companies would admit they could do a better job in a number of areas, but they were doing enough things right to be valuable and the proof was in what people were willing to do to get the paper.

Everything about a paper has a value consideration, not the just the content. It's also how people receive the paper, why they pick it up, how it looks, how easy it is to read and how they feel when they put it down. While in an ideal world we'd like to do everything perfect, you don't have to. You just have to do enough things right and guard against doing anything too wrong and create a balance that tips the scales on your behalf.

Let's start with delivery. Short of handing the paper to a reader, the next best thing for a weekly is the mail, but that's expensive. We all wonder what we might gain or lose by which method, but hung on the door knob or mail box is next, followed by thrown or racked.

My longtime client and friend Tom Ward, publisher of Breeze Newspapers in Rhode Island knows. He's 100 percent racked and it was his conscious decision to spend his money on content not delivery. Say "The Paper" in those parts and people know you mean The Breeze.

Tom has proven that people will be inconvenienced and go out of their way if you put out a good paper. People will bend over in the driveway and maybe even look for it in the bushes if you've created enough value. He created the balance.

Here's where it gets complicated, what kind of content?

Readers pick up papers for information, looking for things they don't know that interest them. News they can use, was the expression years ago. A good community paper is a smorgasbord of that information, something for everyone. It's the local bible, the owner's manual for the community. That standard applies to news and advertising alike. The key is creating utility.

The goal here is to attract readership making the best possible use of your resources, both people and paper. My mantra years ago as a publisher was, "If it's important to them (our readers), then it should be important to us." A lot of that stuff can be pretty boring to editors, but every story has a constituency and the more of them we collect the better. I used to tell my editors that every press release was a compliment because contributors were voting that this was the place to communicate.

All that news brings up another consideration that some papers seem to miss. The paper should be as easy NOT to read as it is to read. No, that was not a typo. The paper should be easy not to read. Stories that don't interest readers are like static on the radio, it interferes with their reading pleasure.

I say pleasure because reading the paper should be a pleasant experience. News should be presented in descending order of importance and impact. Big and interesting things first, stories with wide reader interest up front. Headlines should clearly reflect the story (spare me from editors who write headlines for each other). News should be grouped by town or topic. Pages should be labeled with attractive standing heads so people can blow by that category if they're not interested.

Good packaging helps create ownership. By grouping town news you can showcase the news and create a sense of ownership. People will appreciate not having to plow through a bunch of towns they're not interested in.

Pick your coverage spots. If you have limited resources and can't be the complete paper you'd like, find something you can own and build on that.
Only pick fights you can win. If the local daily is big on meeting coverage, concentrate on news enterprise or features. Give people something they can't get elsewhere.

I've seen shoppers create demand though a mouthy columnist that many people didn't like, but they never wanted to miss what he had to say. Another had success with a "man around town" column of just names and a few faces. The purists in the newsroom ridiculed it, but it was probably the best read item in the Sunday paper.

It's all about the reader, what is useful to them. Even briefs or a calendar of events will work, especially if yours is better than anyone else's. The paper should contribute to the quality of life in a community by helping readers understand how it works and what's going on. The more of that you do, the more value you create. The greater the utility of the publication, the higher the likelihood of advertsier support.

After a few decades in the newsroom, one thing remains clear to me. The newspaper belongs to the readers; we just put it out for them. Readers will always be the final judge of value and success.

Next time: Why does most advertising fail?

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