by Allan R. Andrews
(AR) WASHINGTON --
newspaper readers what news they want in their
paper is like asking them to plan their own surprise party. They don't
know and can't know!
This judgment of readers is one of the many conclusions drawn in an article in the latest issue of The American Journalism Review called, "What Do Readers Really Want? The pitfalls of market research."
The lengthy analysis by Charles Layton, a former Philadelphia Inquirer editor and now a freelance writer and book editor, should be required reading for every publisher, editor, marketing manager, advertising sales person, and circulation director at every newspaper in the country.
The magazine's president, Reese Cleghorn, dean of the school of journalism at the U. of Maryland, says Layton "deals extensively with what drives a lot of short-term newspaper decisions: bad research or badly applied research."
Market research in journalism, Layton concludes, is far more complicated than editors and publishers have been led to believe.
"We can say with confidence," Layton writes, "that people want the paper delivered on time and that they want the ink not to rub off."
We also know readers want accurate and fair reporting and compelling headlines, Layton notes.
"Beyond that," Layton says, "the results of market research, as applied to news, are disappointing."
Layton reviews the history of the shift that moved the balance of power "from editors to readers" (and indirectly to marketers), as was noted a decade ago by James Batten, former CEO of Knight-Ridder.
Blowing a fresh breeze into the stale air currently dominating journalism, Layton says journalists have dropped one of their enduring and job-defining skills -- skepticism. "Newspaper people have not been skeptical enough about the claims made for readership research," he writes.
More specifically, Layton lays part of the blame at the feet of journalists who bought into or were overwhelmed by the iconoclastic newspaper philosophy of Al Neuharth and his bold venture with USAToday. Layton implies that much marketing research fails to support some of Neuharth's most cherished maxims, such as less world news, no front-page jumps and shorter stories.
Layton goes directly to the researchers to get them to say that for decades little has been found to support the notion that readers want shorter stories, won't read jumps and have no interest in world news.
Christine Urban, a leading market researcher and newspaper consultant, tells Layton her company has been telling newspapers for 24 years that important stories should be longer. Another market researcher, Greg Martire, told Layton, a story "should stop when it gets boring."
Layton doesn't say it, but he clearly implies that many journalists have become more impressed with Neuharth's success based on unproven slogans than with what the market research is actually saying.
Space won't allow me to fully outline Layton's points; they deserve first-hand reading anyway. (It's not currently at the AJR website, but that may change.) He brings skepticism to bear on journalism's dependence on focus-group research and on the nature of the questions that are asked in surveys. He cites examples of newspapers that bought too heavily into the so-called "dumbing down" of news from live national and world news to quick, easy-reading soft features and went belly up, and notes that the pressure for "less substantial" news is driven more by Wall Street's interest in newsprint savings than by readers' desires.
Layton concludes by noting the impressive appeal of stories that readers say "piss them off." In short, Layton argues that publishers and editors have for decades been driving in the wrong direction, or at least in the wrong lane, the success of USAToday notwithstanding. Layton notes that as that paper evolved into a more serious newspaper it increasingly violated its own dumbing-down rules.
In his editorial on the article, Cleghorn urges newspapers to get serious about research, both quantitative and qualitative (almost non-existent, Cleghorn notes). He warns, however, that such commitments will cost money.
The results of good newspaper research, in Layton's view, would surely uncover less need for concern about layout and packaging and more about substance and good writing.
The real need appears to be getting editors and reporters to do what they have always been expected to do -- think about words and sentences, and give the readers what they deserve: the unvarnished truth in compelling prose.
March 15, 1999 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact email@example.com for permission to use in any format.
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