Readership Institute Brings Its Seminal Study Up-To-Date

By: Lucia Moses

Two years after the Readership Institute released its extensive “Impact” study of readership, more and more papers are testing its remedies. Hoping to fan the flames of interest in the subject, the Newspaper Association of America will host its first conference on it next month. But will enough papers act quickly enough to disrupt the decline in youth readership and overall daily reading habit?

At least 200 newspapers have begun using the institute’s Reader Behavior Score (RBS) tool to gauge how readers use them. But new work from the institute, a program of Northwestern University’s Media Management Center, aims to get more papers measuring and trying new tactics — things it admits newspapers aren’t especially known for.

The institute surveyed 3,066 people last summer to come up with a new RBS that a paper can use as a benchmark in tracking the impact of recent changes in its brand, content, and service. “The point of all this is to measure change,” said Mary Nesbitt, the institute’s managing director.

The first RBS study was done by mail survey; this time, the institute used the phone to enable newspapers, which prefer this less-cumbersome method, to track readership in a consistent way.

For publishers such as Brad Tillson of the Dayton (Ohio) Daily News, this “creates a strong incentive” to measure his newspaper’s RBS. The Daily News already has made a range of changes in response to the 2000 Impact study, from adding more lifestyle content to making ads more eye-catching, and Tillson is eager to see if the changes paid off. He expects to conduct an RBS study in the spring.

Publishers have hailed the Impact study, but implementing it requires looking at one’s organization in a new way, and “We don’t like change very much in our industry,” said Marty Kaiser, editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. To promote understanding of the initiatives, the Robert R. McCormick Tribune Foundation awarded $449,000 to the American Society of Newspaper Editors Foundation to train newspapers in the study over the next two years.

A perception persists that the Impact study is too grandiose to apply to small papers, but David Stringer, publisher of The Norman (Okla.) Transcript, a 15,198-circulation daily, hopes his experience shows otherwise. Inspired by the study’s eight recommendations, Stringer has effected change throughout the building. He’s appointed department task forces, made content changes (such as encouraging more enterprise reporting), and reorganized staff. He believes his most important effort, however, has been to instill a culture that promotes openness and puts readers first. To him, the Impact study represents more than the episodic attempts at self-improvement of the past. Asked by a Transcript employee when the initiative ends, Stringer responded, “Never.”

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