Job 1 for Newspapers: Audience Development


By: Alan D. Mutter

Job 1 for Newspapers: Audience Development

While strategic audience development ought to be the top priority at every newspaper, efforts toward fulfilling this vital mission are fitful and far between at many publications. This has got to change, if the industry intends to sustain its strength.   

The bad news for newspapers is that a significant majority of the adults in the typical community don’t subscribe to the paper in either its print or digital incarnations. But the flip side of this problem is that the abundant population of non-readers in every community represents a substantial base of potential consumers for the transformative and delightful new products that publishers could bring to market – if they put their minds to it.  

It’s not that newspapers neglect audience building. They don’t. But their outreach is aimed almost exclusively at capturing the increasingly rare customer who reliably pays for print or digital access for months, if not years, on end. Those are great customers and any business would be glad to have them.   

But the population of steadfast loyalists is dwindling, as modern consumers take advantage of the digital media to customize the news, entertainment and information they ingest. Given shifting consumer preferences, newspapers need to think differently, if not to say obsessively, about how to serve – and profit – from individuals who don’t look, think or behave like traditional subscribers. Unfortunately, most newspapers don’t.  

Here’s why they should:  

Falling readership. Since peaking at 63.3 million subscribers in 1994 (the year before the Internet entered the public consciousness), weekday newspaper circulation fell by 30 percent to 44.4 million in 2011, according to the most recent data published by the Newspaper Association of America. Back in 1994, 63.5 percent of American households subscribed to newspapers, according to an analysis of census data. In 2011, only 38.9 percent of homes took newspapers – with penetration evidently continuing to fall ever since, according to the semiannual updates issued by the Alliance for Audited Media.  

Rising competition. Modern consumers are hooked on the power conferred by the digital media to pick and choose what, where, when and how they get news and other information. The Pew Research Center last year found that two-thirds of Americans visited upwards of three or more outlets to keep up with current events. Twenty percent of urban dwellers accessed six or more news sources, while 11 percent of rural residents consulted half a dozen or more sources.  

Demographic drift. Most young consumers simply don’t dig newspapers, leaving publishers with ever-older audiences that eventually will age to extinction. The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University earlier this year reported that 55 percent of individuals under the age of 35 preferred the digital media as their primary news source, as compared with 5 percent in the same age category who preferred print.  

Because there is no reason to believe these trends are likely to reverse, publishers hoping to sustain and reinvigorate their valuable franchises need to concentrate on finding new products and services to attract the readers they need – and the advertisers they want.  

Newspapers can create transformative and delightful products across the growing range of digital platforms by leveraging their unmatched content-creation capabilities, vast archives, unrivaled local marketing power and the deep commercial relationships they possess in each of the communities they serve.  

What audiences? What products? What platforms?  

The answers to those vexing questions will be revealed only after publishers invest the time and money necessary to develop thoughtful strategic plans that take into account local market conditions, the competitive forces arrayed around them, and the unique strengths and weaknesses of their respective organizations. Equipped with well-wrought strategic plans, publishers can invest wisely and confidently in opportunities to attract new audiences and revenue streams.  

As mission-critical as strategic planning and audience building ought to be, these missions fail to be accorded the priority they deserve at many newspapers. Some newspapers delegate “audience” to the editor, who somehow is supposed to fix things by intuitively producing the “right” sort of content.  Some publishers assign audience development to the circulation manager, who somehow is supposed to boost subscriptions while curbing cancellations. Some papers allocate audience development to the marketing department, whose staffing, research and/or promotional budgets often are the first to be cut in moments of financial distress. At many newspapers, these missions aren’t even explicitly on the radar at all.  

When the development of transformative and delightful products is left largely to chance, the outcome is unlikely to be auspicious, because successful innovations seldom emerge from seat-of-the pants hunches, scattered responsibilities and episodic tactical skirmishes.  

Success requires a well-researched, well-conceived, well-articulated and well-communicated strategic plan that is the responsibility of everyone in the building. At most newspapers, this approach not only would be transformative but also would make life more delightful than it has been in years.  

Alan D. Mutter is a former newspaper editor who became a Silicon Valley CEO and now serves as a strategic consultant for media companies. He blogs at Reflections of a Newsosaur (


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