Taking Readers for a Spin(off)

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By: Jennifer Saba

Newspapers across the country are becoming born-again enthusiasts of the loyal reader. For years, newspapers have assumed that by making a paper appeal to the young, the readers will flock to it. But the stories on Brangelina and Paris Hilton come at a price: The under-35 set gets that kind of news elsewhere, and readers 45 and over feel insulted.

Some newsrooms are taking a new approach: Not only spinning off products to attract other demographics, but also reframing the paid daily to speak to “core” readers, however that is defined (sometimes loosely, with no wish to offend the “non-core”).

While not exactly going after baby boomers, Bob Mong, editor of The Dallas Morning News (which has already spun off successful youth and Hispanic papers) says the paper’s new strategy should make the Morning News more appealing to the over-50 set: “I’m more interested in serving that core audience in the print newspaper.”

Through its initial research, the paper discovered some obvious characteristics about three kinds of loyal readers: those who use the paid daily as their main source of information; those that use multiple sources (the Internet, cable TV, etc.); and information nuts ? professors, teachers, story-hungry people who just love to read anything.

Mong points out that the similarities tend to cut across age groups, and that while the core reader “skews older than the market,” he says, Dallas is comparatively a younger city. “They are wealthier, better educated, they vote,” he says of his paper’s loyal readers. “They are active and want a connection to the community.”

At the same time, the other print products launched by the Morning News, including Quick and al d?a (targeting younger readers looking for a fast read, and Hispanics, respectively) are working effectively. There’s no reason to encroach on their turf, for they are a wave of the future.

“Successful companies will have to have a portfolio of products to have 70% market coverage rather than let one product carry 70% of the market,” says Christine Urban, president of market research/consulting firm Urban & Associates in Sharon, Mass. “It isn’t that any one of these products will be more important than the others ?what counts is the portfolio.”

That means more spinoffs, but where does that leave the print flagship?

No doubt the Morning News is going through a substantial change. In August, executives announced they were slashing 17% of the newsroom by extending buyout packages. Fewer reporters (at press time, 111 had accepted the package) and a renewed focus on loyal readers means that Mong and his staff have to seriously evaluate what is covered, and reassess what that core audience wants.

He is cagey when pressed on the details ? specifically, what beats and sections will fall by the wayside. Part of the reason, Mong explains, is that he is not sure what the fallout will be from the latest staff cuts. But he gives some clues as to what changes are in store.

Dallas, like just about every other newsroom, has adopted the mantra ? always chanted three times ? of local, local, local. Mong adds, “We are going to organize around and increase localism and determine what we are going to be best at, and talk about things we are going to give up doing.”

That boils down to the paper running stories from the wires or news services that don’t directly affect the city, region, or state. No doubt to the chagrin of the paper’s Washington bureau, Mong offers the following example: When White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan resigned from his post, it was a Morning News staff-written report. When Tony Snow was announced as his replacement, that story was staff-written too. “In the future, we are not going to do that,” Mong explains.

The McClellan story had a Texas angle ? McClellan’s mother is running for governor of Texas. Snow has no Texas ties. Going forward, Mong says, a story like Snow’s will be taken from the wires, while one like McClellan’s will get the staff treatment.

Mong says that they are looking at beefing up Section A, judiciously increasing its size several days a week since it’s popular with readers. It won’t come at the expense of its Metro section, he confirms, but adds that some other sections will shrink as a result. (The Dallas Observer reported that management is looking to trim staff in arts and entertainment ? goodbye, youth-oriented content ? and the Washington Bureau).

Part of the reason Mong is evasive when discussing the changes is that his paper is still trying to understand who its core reader is and what it is they want. Even intuitive changes aren’t so intuitive: When the Morning News was in the throes of rezoning its Metro section, subscribers got wind of it and went ballistic.

The paper planned to produce separate Metro sections by neighborhoods. Readers in the suburb of Richardson blasted Mong with 500 e-mails, complaining that the zoning was wrong: Readers didn’t want their information clustered by geography, they wanted the section to cover school districts (neighborhoods and school districts don’t necessarily align in Dallas). The paper set up a town meeting, heard the readers out, and changed course. Adds Mong: “Guess what our most successful neighborhood is? Richardson.”

Diversifying: a key idea

Like the Morning News, The Orange County (Calif.) Register launched a variety of products to address the different needs of various readers. Instead of placing the burden on the paid daily to attract disparate groups, the Register is sweeping the market with spin-off pubs.

It’s an approach to which N. Christian Anderson III, the Register’s publisher, testifies. His paper was tired of sitting by and watching readers drop their subscriptions or refrain from subscribing at all because they didn’t have time for the daily. Instead of trying to turn a turtle into a hare, the company launched OC Post, a tab-sized home delivered daily that is paid (at $22/year) and targeted to people who aren’t regular readers of the full-sized Register.

The launch of the OC Post and other products like its weekly SqueezeOC, aimed at the young and affluent, will inform how the Register will retrench to please its loyal readers.

Currently, the front page of the Register beckons to readers with little time; it’s designed to give people a glance at the news without having to open the paper. Everything, save for one story, is a “refer” to what appears inside. “The thinking was that people somewhat pressed for time could look at the front page and have a sense of what’s going on,” Anderson explains. “I think with the OC Post in hand we will have to take another look at it.”

The idea that OC Post ? aimed at 140,000 households, mostly young families ? might one day usurp the paid daily doesn’t concern Anderson: “Though we have enough churn for Register subscribers, if we end up having lower Register circulation by converting many of those to OC Post readers, what’s the problem?”

It’s an idea Urban believes should be pursued even further. Since newspapers have the resources and the equipment, they should be thinking in terms of many products aimed at all sorts of reader demographics. For kids ? yes, kids ? that could mean comic books and posters; for old people, a broadsheet with 18-point type so they could read the darn thing.

“What do you care if they read the broadsheet or the tab?” she asks. “Who cares, as long as they read something that you have published?”

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