Readership Crusaders Push for Change

By: Lucia Moses

On the outside, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution probably seems much the same as it was a year ago. But from an insider’s perspective, big changes are afoot. The “Home & Garden” section is a case in point. Before it underwent a recent revamp, Jim Wilson, director of business development, conducted several focus groups with readers. He asked them about their lives and what they wanted in a homes section. Representatives from all departments listened from behind a glass window as readers described their busy routines and shared their desire for more how-to and where-to-buy information, improved graphics, and shorter stories.

The contrast with past practice couldn’t have been starker. Before, the editorial department would have decided on its own what changes it wanted, then announced its plans to advertising, Wilson says. In the rare times editors sought reader input, they did so just days before changes were set to take effect.

All this is happening under the influence of Stacy Lynch, who became the paper’s first readership editor in October 2002 before being promoted to director of innovations two months ago. One of her goals is to break down the barriers between departments that may have prevented the paper from best serving its readers.

She’s one of a small but growing squad of in-house proselytizers, with varying titles, who are trying to get newspapers to put readers first. Their bible is the Northwestern University Readership Institute’s 2000 “Impact” study that suggests papers can grow readership through improvements in content, service, brand, and culture. The papers start as small as the 15,892-circ Union in Grass Valley, Calif., and go all the way up to the 535,441-average daily circulation Dallas Morning News.

Most readership apostles, like Lynch, reside in the newsroom, while others preach from marketing, circulation, and other pulpits. Their ranks and responsibilities vary, but all hope to affect change across departments.

Even at those organizations that are most aggressive about readership, change hasn’t come easily. Some advocates have encountered hostility or apathy to change; even where staffers have found religion, financial constraints and institutional inertia can hamper progress.Diane McFarlin, publisher of the Sarasota (Fla.) Herald-Tribune, who was among the first to hire someone to focus on readership imperatives, says her paper was one of a handful that the Readership Institute deemed to have a “constructive culture.” But she felt the paper lost ground during the economic downturn, something that always “creates more short-term thinking,” she says, adding that “There’s also a tendency to rest on laurels.”

Lynch, seeing on a Readership Institute listserv the frustration and isolation people in similar positions were feeling, convened a two-day national gathering at the AJC two weeks ago. Twenty-eight people from news, circulation, marketing, and advertising backgrounds met to share experiences, vent frustrations, and discuss some of the best practices. “I don’t think any of us feel we have the level of interdepartmental cooperation that we need,” says Lynch, who hopes to have another meeting in May. She adds, “Building this is a slow process.”

Indeed, one wonders: Can newspapers overcome their embedded culture and become truly readership-oriented?

Improvements, coming soon

As the following examples show, reader editors are in some ways defining their jobs as they go. Stacy Lynch had no newspaper background, but as former research manager of the Readership Institute, she brought deep knowledge of the subject to the AJC. As director of innovations, reporting to Editor Julia Wallace, she directs readership research for the newsroom, represents news in circulation and marketing meetings, and regularly meets with employees to share research.

The most tangible impact of her work were the launch last spring of “accessAtlanta,” a weekly entertainment guide, and the redesign of “Home & Garden.” But Lynch also spends a lot of time nudging people across departments to get things done, such as spiffing up outdated filler ads. Despite improvement, she still sees resistance to cooperating with other departments and changing the status quo. Not that she seeks more power. The paper’s parent, Cox Newspapers, has an informal culture, and she believes that the best way to bring about real change is by working with people in the trenches.

Mike King, the paper’s public editor, says that while Lynch’s appointment created some concern that the paper would become focus group-driven, acceptance by the newsroom is growing. Most importantly, she simply gives the newsroom research about what readers think. “The worst thing newspeople do is assume readers’ reading habits are the same as their reading habits,” he says. For example, being faced with reader testimony that they wanted an entertainment guide to be a quick read made it easier to accept.

Jon Devries had worked as an assigning editor for the Herald-Tribune when McFarlin approached him to be content editor a year and a half ago. At first, Devries’ main focus was improving in-paper promotion, but his title has since changed to readership editor to reflect a more overarching role. He represents the newsroom on five interdepartmental task forces, which are charged with improving culture, customer service, local news, brand, and ad content.

In recent days, Devries has spent much of his time addressing employees at a series of “pep rallies” designed to raise awareness of the importance of readership. The rallies were designed to be fun, but readership is anything but a light matter here. Devries is a news employee but reports partly to the publisher, which should leave no one wondering if readership is just a passing fad. A past president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, McFarlin is a big believer in the Impact study.

The hope is that, over time, Devries will spend less time on awareness-building and more on research. “The hard part is trying to make this mission clear, because the path isn’t clearly laid out,” he says.

The 207,989-circ Buffalo (N.Y.) News and The Bakersfield Californian, circulation 65,899, also have newsroom-based readership editors. At the comparatively small Union in Grass Valley, that role resides in the top editor, Rich Somerville. A former Readership Institute research associate, Somerville was hired as part of a corporate readership push by Swift Newspapers Inc., Reno, Nev., publisher of the Union. “They think this readership is absolutely crucial to the survival of their company as an independent company,” Somerville says.

Upon arriving at the Union in September 2002, Somerville found a newsroom with a well-deserved reputation for making mistakes, not returning phone calls, and reactive news planning. Now, editors meet regularly to plan stories, based on what were identified as key news coverage areas. Somerville instituted a correction report system, and made accuracy a part of job descriptions. He also talks at operating committee meetings about what Impact can teach circ and advertising. “I’m just trying stuff, seeing what works,” he says.

Power, to get things done

In some cases, the readership thrust comes not from the news, but the business side. The Orlando (Fla.) Sentinel may be the only paper with a vice president with primary responsibility for readership initiatives. Bill Steiger, named vp/director of audience development in February, reports directly to Publisher Kathleen Waltz and is charged with developing an overall company strategy to grow audience.

Waltz says the VP title reflects the importance of readership (which also happens to be a big deal for parent Tribune Co.) at the paper. “If you’re a vice president, you’ve got more sway within the organization,” she says. It also lets Steiger pursue initiatives outside the newsroom and move faster than a department head or task force could. “The benefit he brings is a clear eye on what the problem is, and the time to analyze the problem, the ability to draw on resources anywhere in the company, and the position in the company to get it done,” Waltz says.

For his part, Steiger, a 30-year advertising salesman, says, “I really didn’t want to do the job if I was playing referee.” Under Steiger’s direction, the paper has started a weekly high school sports section, redesigned its zoned section for Orange County, and created a youth-aimed entertainment Web site set to launch Nov. 21. With all new projects now coordinated under him, he boasts, “We’ve done things in six months that would’ve taken three years previously.” His far-reaching position leads him to work with directors and managers, participate on project teams, and talk to readers, and he has been known to suggest to news how a certain story could have been presented in a more reader-friendly way.

‘Evangelists’ bring change

Bill Tanner’s official title at The Dallas Morning News is director of strategic research, but he’s also added the unofficial title of “readership evangelist.” Tanner was hired in November 2001 from the Coca-Cola Co. by E. Lee Qualls, senior vice president of marketing at the News and a fellow Coke alum, to bring the News’ research up a notch. Tanner brought a packaged-goods approach to the newspaper’s research, testing proposed products and tracking their response post-launch, analyzing effectiveness of marketing spending, regularly measuring market share.

News Publisher and CEO James M. Moroney III started to feel that the paper was late to the readership game, and he asked Tanner to analyze the Impact research and devise a plan to increase the paper’s reader behavior score in 2004. “I think people at our newspaper understand the importance of ease of navigation, cross-promotion, stickiness… ” Moroney says. “We just have to build readership more into our lexicon.”

Now, Tanner also champions the readership findings of Impact, in presentations to senior managers and employee groups. Tanner had spent 20 years at Coke, and while he admits it makes “some people get really frustrated,” he isn’t shy about relating his extensive packaged goods experience to newspapers. Tanner stresses that while newspapers aren’t just another consumer product, they could learn from the way consumer products study markets. “Looking at what the consumer thinks is natural for me,” he says. The goal of readership research is “to make the customer king again.”

In presentations to employees, Tanner likes to draw parallels to frozen orange juice, for which he oversaw research at Coke. When Coke saw young people didn’t want to bother with mixing frozen O.J., it switched to single-serving bottles. Says Tanner, “you have to look at the format young people want news delivered in.”

For most of these papers, it will be some time before reader behavior score, circulation, employee attitude surveys, staff turnover, and other measures will indicate if their readership push is making a difference. But in the meantime, these readership advocates say they see evidence people are increasingly embracing readership goals. Tanner, for example, says the news staff recently asked him for help in tracking trend forecasts so it can stay ahead of the curve in various areas.

Still, resistance manifests itself in practical and cultural ways. First, getting budgets for unproven ideas is tough. In Orlando, Steiger has one project on his wish list, but says it “requires a little capital and a couple FTEs, and it’s hard to argue for them.” Sarasota’s McFarlin justified creating a new position devoted to readership by tying it to her goal for circulation growth. Yet when a city editor slot was vacant, Devries was pulled away from readership duties for six months to fill in. The five interdepartmental task forces were asked for ideas to improve the paper but without spending any money. For publishers like her who care about readership, McFarlin says, “The problem, frankly, is finding an FTE.”

Complaints about cultural resistance often are directed at the newsroom, where most readership initiatives are carried out. Devries says some resisted “giving up the real estate on 1A” when the Herald-Tribune, at his recommendation, put a rail on the front page to promote inside news content. Others cite difficulty getting reporters to change the way they’ve done things for years, such as giving stories an institutional slant. As Susan LoTempio, assistant managing editor for readership at the Buffalo News, observes, “we cover things the way we think they should be covered.” And newspeople, even while acknowledging that declining circulation calls for different tactics, tend to be skeptical of anything — readership surveys included — that smacks of marketing. Privately, some journalists mourn for, in the words of one, “the good old days, when we didn’t consult with readers about what they wanted.”

“While there’s nothing wrong with taking a look at the research and recommendations, they are not what should be driving decisions on coverage,” Jim Heaney, an investigative reporter at the Buffalo News, wrote in an e-mail. “Instead, newspapers ought to be shaping their coverage to promote justice, democracy and quality of life in their communities. Using that benchmark, increased coverage of food, fashion and some of the other topics recommended by these surveys don’t — and shouldn’t — make the radar screen.”

Other departments don’t get off the hook, either. While the circulation department has grown more marketing-oriented, it needs to think more about growing not just overall circulation but that of the target groups — and understanding what service means to readers, Readership Institute Managing Director Mary Nesbitt says.

And advertising, which understandably thinks of itself primarily as a revenue generator, needs to think also about how to make ads appealing to readers. And sometimes the resistance comes from outside the building, points out Richard Esposito, ad director and associate publisher of the Union, whose advertisers don’t always appreciate his efforts to make ads more graphically interesting. “Sometimes an ad looks like hell, but the advertiser loves it,” he says.

The problem is more general, though. Attendees at Lynch’s summit described the process of educating people about things as basic as who their readers are as a constant struggle, given forgetfulness, staff turnover, and the fact that “sometimes you’ll have people even in senior positions who don’t know” that information, Lynch says.

As much as people want to do right by readers, she says, “it’s very easy to be in your own job and doing your own thing.” People aren’t always excited about change when it requires more effort and carries the risk of making hated mistakes, she says. One might ask, “Why change a section when it’s profitable?”

Says Steiger, “We are fighting a lack of institutional acceptance of growing audience.” People are “not used to thinking that way. It’s a by-product of working in silos for so long.”

Hitting the bar, after work

“The culture of newspapers, especially newsrooms, is such a high bar to overcome,” says Earl J. Wilkinson, executive director of the International Newspaper Marketing Association. Dailies in Europe that he has studied have a clear church/ state separation, “but as a result of competition in those markets, they’re infinitely sharper,” he says. Single-copy markets are even more so, he says, whereas “If you’re 51% subscription, the hurricane comes slower.”

While at the Readership Institute, Somerville used to present Impact’s findings to industry groups. Some reactions were discouraging. “When one publisher said, ‘I have 80% penetration, I need revenue,’ it occurred to me, he didn’t get it,” he says. “It’s not about how many porches you land on, but how many people are picking it up, reading it, and for how long. I don’t know — as long as they’re making 25%, even 40% profits, then what’s their incentive to give a damn about readership?”

But since Impact came out three years ago, Nesbitt sees readership becoming increasingly top of mind. A July institute resurvey of the original papers studied by Impact showed more than three-fourths have paid some attention to Impact’s recommendations, with a smaller number acting “with breadth and intensity.”

“Managers and supervisors are very focused around readership,” she says. “They’re trying to break out of a mold that’s been successful for a very long time.”

Nesbitt hopes these new readership positions some papers have created will be a step in an evolutionary process. “The absolute ideal would be that I, as a publisher, was so committed to readership that it manifested itself in my management team, and that we didn’t need to have someone with ‘readership’ in their title,” she says.

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