Cover the Community: Weekly and Alternative Publishers Say Newspapers Should Stop Relying on Readership Surveys and Simply Cover More Community News

Article excerpt

Instead of relying so heavily on readership surveys to climb back to prosperity, daily newspapers should concentrate more on basic community coverage.

This was the message given to a daily "establishment" panel by another panel consisting of weekly and alternative publishers at the California Newspaper Publishers Association convention.

"The dailies no longer adequately cover smaller geographic communities or diverse lifestyle communities," said Rick Trent, president and publisher of Southern California Community Newspapers.

"This lack of coverage has contributed to the decline in penetration of large newspapers," he added.

Trent, Bruce Brugmann, editor and publisher of the alternative San Francisco Bay Guardian, and Michael Taborski, general manager of six rural weeklies in Northern California, got their say after the daily panel had spread out the results of readership studies to bolster their claim that newspapers must change to survive.

Kristin McGrath, president of MORI Research in Minneapolis, said she applied a previously broader survey to three California markets and found that "young people often view newspaper reading as a habit belonging to a different generation, a habit they are not going to take up."

McGrath said she also discovered a disparity in preferences in newspaper content between test groups around the nation and in the California markets.

In the former, she explained, the top news interest of "At-Risk" readers (those who do not feel newspapers are essential) were local-city, neighborhood, national, and crime news.

In California, it was weekend entertainment information, international news, and regional news.

Among "Potential" [irregular] readers, the national group added international and "news that's helpful with everyday living" to that of the "At-Risk" list.

Not one of the elements in the top five list of the potentials was found among the California respondents, according to McGrath. Their leading news priorities, she said, were environment, crime, health, science, education, technology, and regional coverage.

To identify "At-Risk" and "Potential" readers in individual markets for a survey, McGrath advised newspapers to choose appropriate target audiences "big enough to matter."

"Know the demographic makeup of the target audiences in your market," she continued. She urged a focus on such aspects as age, balance of men to women, upscale groups who are infrequent readers, and the role of population mobility.

Larry Jinks, publisher of the Knight-Ridder-owned San Jose Mercury News, said the paper's "own version" of MORI's research disclosed "dramatic differences in our audience. People are younger, richer, and better educated."

Also discovered was that the paper's core area is undergoing sweeping demographic changes and that its readers' views are "significantly different" in some ways from the national MORI sample, he added.

As a result, Jinks said, the Mercury News is being redesigned. Among new elements, he noted, will be a comprehensive news summary, bigger type, key word jump lines, and a tv log grid.

Sue Clark-Jackson, president of Gannett West and publisher of the Reno (Nev.) Gazette-Journal, drew on the research for Gannett's News 2000 program, which advises newspapers to cover such things as shopping trends and sales, workplace issues, and to supply information on how readers can spend time in their town.

Other content ideas include publishing local columnists with strong personalities, increasing the use of local profiles in all sections, and exploring history angles in the community. …