Academic journal article Newspaper Research Journal

Commentary: Readership Research - Challenges and Chances

Academic journal article Newspaper Research Journal

Commentary: Readership Research - Challenges and Chances

Article excerpt

Many newspaper managers and editors still believe that readership research is not only overly expensive, but superfluous. Why waste time and money, they say, when research at best provides trivial evidence? Surprising! results like younger readers are more likely than older ones to accept layout innovations(1) contribute to the general notion that research about newspaper readers results in nothing more than platitudes. And, for those who strongly oppose the trend to give the readers what they want,(2) readership research can be dangerous - especially if knowing and uncritically accepting readers' wishes erodes the quality of journalism.(3)

But that doesn't mean newspapers have abandoned research. Randal Beam found 50 percent of U.S. newspapers did their own research and 85 percent contracted with outside consultants. In Europe, newspapers, particularly those in Sweden, are similarly involved. But simply conducting research doesn't guarantee the results will be used for relevant purposes or lead to substantive outcomes. For example, Beam's 1991 survey found most newspapers used research results to restructure the softer sections of the newspaper(like comics and entertainment) far more often than the coverage of national and international affairs. And while newspapers continue to face decreasing circulation amidst growing competition and fragmentation in the marketplace, they don't necessarily observe their readers more regularly.(4) Although observations like this might indicate (like comics and entertainment) far more often than the coverage of national and international affairs. And while newspapers continue to face decreasing circulation amidst growing competition and fragmentation in the marketplace, they don't necessarily observe their readers more regularly.(4) Although observations like this might indicate that research is held in fairly low esteem, an alternative explanation is that newspaper managers are in the process of learning about a new tool and have yet to make an all-out commitment to its use.

The rapidly changing marketplace for newspapers suggests that readership research should play a central role in securing any future industry success. We know that almost everywhere newspaper reading is shrinking or at best has remained stable.(5) Yet time devoted to the use of virtually all other media - including books and magazines - has increased.

The general decline of the newspaper has occurred in part because a growing number of readers have discovered that it's simply not worth turning to a newspaper anymore.(6) People either get the information they regard as important elsewhere (e.g., from local radio and television, from local weeklies, free sheets or from regional magazines) or, even worse, they don't miss the information provide by newspapers at all, even in other sources. Being well-informed about community matters, for example, has lost its importance at a time of increasing mobility, individualization, of decreasing social ties and of diminished interest in conventional politics.

Also, because newspaper reading is highly ritualized,(7) it may also have suffered from a development that we have observed for quite a while: traditional habitual behaviors seem to lose their obligatory character - organizations, parties, churches, marriages(8) - and, quite recently in Germany, even the sacrosanct times for shopping. But newspaper reading may not serve as a ritual for marking the time of day or for separating other activities anymore, once everyday life has become de-synchronized.(9) It's no longer true that everyone follows the same working and leisure time rhythms.

If both the outdated appearance and function of the newspaper and principal changes in the lifestyle of its readers have made it an endangered species, then the challenge to readership research has become even greater. Readership research is no longer a luxury - something to only polish the newspaper, to make it even better than it may have been already. …

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