Survival strategy

March 5, 2004 • Media Economics • by

Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Mar. 05, 2004

It all sounds like an entry in the Guiness Book of World Records: so far 37,000 people from 100 different newspaper markets in the USA have been questioned by the Readership Institute of the Northwestern University to find out how the staggering decrease in the number of newspaper readers in the US can be stopped or even transformed into an increase.

The American Journalism Review (Dec./Jan. 2003/4) reports what the researchers have found out. Much is more obvious than sensational – but nevertheless the newspaper industry on both sides of the Atlantic obviously still has a hard time drawing the necessary consequences.The four cornerstones to induce growth of readership are excellent customer service, better content offer (including pages of advertising), greater branding efforts and a change of management and editorship culture. Improvements in the editorial part – probably with regional newspapers in particular, since there are only three truly national newspapers in the USA – should aim for even more reader proximity: the average American would like to identify himself with his newspaper. By adding even more colour, more graphic illustration of information, more self-promotion and more reader guidance, the newspaper would become more attractive apparently also to readers who otherwise hardly read anything.

Quite surprising is, thus, the fact that US readers would prefer longer pieces in the science sections and less space dedicated to weather forecasts (which in most American newspapers, following the model of USA Today, are spread out over a whole page). But also fewer crime stories and more politics were called for – beginning with community affairs in the American grass-roots democracy up to the processes of globalization, which, just like the entire areas of foreign policy and the world economy, have always been pitifully neglected by the US media.

Some newspapers in the USA, for example the Bakersfield Californian (circulation 70,000) or the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Circulation 420,000), have in the meantime appointed their own readership editors, who are to help their journalist colleagues do what Helmut Markwort has always preached to his Focus editors: always think of the reader – and render texts and illustrations so attractive that newspaper reading becomes for young people what it has always been for older ones: an indispensable every-morning ritual and cult experience.

The Readership Institute is sponsored by the Newspaper Association of America and by the American Society of Newspaper Editors. So far 8 million dollars have been spent and in the next two years another 4 million will be made available. In the meantime, dozens of seminars are transmitting the research results to practitioners in editorial offices all over the country. Since newspapers are in difficulty in many countries in Europe too, now would perhaps be the right moment to launch a corresponding European initiative.

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