Reading Edge Report

By Fitzgerald, Mark | Editor & Publisher, October 9, 2000 | Go to article overview

Reading Edge Report


Fitzgerald, Mark, Editor & Publisher


Editors and publishers hope the most extensive survey undertaken will help reverse a half-century of fading newspaper readership

Inside a small suite in a snazzy glass-and-steel office building that dwarfs its neighbors along a nondescript street on the edge of downtown Evanston, Ill., a dozen or so people are crunching numbers on a project that may very well be the best hope -- or last chance -- newspapers will ever have of reversing a readership decline they have been unable to stanch for 50 years.

"They are working on 12 different research instruments that are going to reveal things about newspaper readership we have never seen before," says Tim J. McGuire, editor and senior vice president of new media for the Star Tribune in Minneapolis. "Nobody has ever done this kind of thing in the complete way they are doing it, with all the connections between consumers, content analysis, marketing, circulation, management, culture. They will be mixing and matching in a way that's never been possible before -- and the data [are] going to be the richest we've ever seen."

McGuire is one of a growing number of newspaper executives who are fired up about the work going on in that Evanston office of the Readership Institute, a program of Northwestern University's Media Management Center. In an industry famous for churning out studies that take early retirement on the shelf, editors and publishers talk about the Readership Institute's "Impact" study of readership with something approaching awe. Full results of the study will not burst out until April, but executive enthusiasm has been stoked by the early results -- concerning newspapers' "militaristic" management style (see story, p. 27)-- that the Readership Institute has released in recent weeks.

"It's the multidimensional aspect of it that [I like]," says Robin Seymour, research director for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, one of the newspapers taking part in the study. It's too much to expect a papers to do this internally -- "to step back and really take a look at market and readers and products in a quantified way," Seymour says.

The study tackles the most important question in readership: What brings people to the paper? It weighs the importance of articles and advertising content in attracting readers. And it explores questions such as this: Is a newspaper that offers a more diverse work force and great work environment more likely to draw readers than one that is ruthlessly efficient, getting the newspaper to the front porch dry and on time?

The depth and breadth of the study is staggering. It involves detailed surveys of the news, production, advertising, circulation, and management practices of 100 dailies placed in a computer-generated random sample to reflect the mix of papers of all sizes in urban, suburban, and rural markets across the continental United States. (The newspapers range in circulation from the 573,000-circulation Chicago Tribune to The Evening News, a 10,147- circulation paper in Jeffersonville, Ind.) Readership Institute researchers are conducting content analysis of 75,000 newspaper articles. In a nation that learns who's up and who's down in the presidential race from polls based on a sample of less than 1,000 people, this study has amassed a survey pool of 30,000 readers and nonreaders.

That is only the beginning, promises Readership Institute Director John Lavine. "Everything we deliver will be actionable," he declares. "As far as we're concerned, the only kind of research that matters is research that you can take action on. Knowledge is great, but unless it's actionable, it's not real valuable in our view."

Getting a read on the problem

Readership is the lifeblood of newspapers -- but it's been bleeding away since the early 1950s when a TV in the living room began to be more ubiquitous than a newspaper at the doorstep.

However it's measured, newspaper readership -- especially daily newspaper readership -- is on a long and continuous slide downhill.

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