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Key to newspapers’ survival? Read further

Marketplace Staff Mar 28, 2007

Key to newspapers’ survival? Read further

Marketplace Staff Mar 28, 2007

KAI RYSSDAL: Think about this the next time you pick up a newspaper: it’s almost as much a marketing tool as it is a report on the events of the day. Sure, relative news value helps decide what story to put where. But you’re not going to buy it if it looks boring, right?

Despite editors’ best efforts to sell their product, newspapers have been having a heck of a time lately. Staff cuts and falling circulation. The New York Times just called February the cruelest month so far for advertising revenue.

The Poynter Institute released a study today all about how people read papers. Which explains why many papers are getting a makeover. Lyn Millner reports.

LYN MILLNER: In January, the Wall Street Journal launched a new design. It’s the paper’s second in five years. The New York Times plans one for 2008. The L.A. Times is embarking on one. Everybody’s doing it — or already has.

But a lot of critics would have us believe that the newspaper is dying. Could all these redesigns be a sign that it’s alive and kicking?

RICK EDMONDS: Well, I think it’s certainly a sign that there’s nothing to be complacent about in the business now.

That’s Rick Edmonds. He tracks the industry for the Poynter Institute. He says that 94 percent of a newspaper’s revenue still comes from print. So print needs to look alive. And its content needs to draw people in immediately.

In fact, content trumps cosmetics, says Mario Garcia. He oversaw the redesign of the Wall Street Journal.

MARIO GARCIA: Otherwise, it’s like dressing a cadaver. You can make a newspaper look very pretty, many of them have died looking wonderful. And many ugly newspapers are still alive. In a few hours — this is lining up a bird cage, or you wrap fish with it, you know. So, this is not a product to beautify.

You rethink the stories you put on page one. You offer articles that are surprising. You provide analysis, not just breaking news. Then, you try to hold the eye. Which is more important than ever.

GARCIA: Ten years ago, when a person opened the front page of a newspaper, they took 25 seconds to sort of do what I call reconnaissance. To go around the page and say, “What will I read?” Right now, it’s about 10 seconds.

Lots of newspapers, like the Journal, have become physically smaller. That saves money on newsprint. Papers have also changed placement of some regular features, like the weather, to open up lucrative ad space.

Alan Jacobson of Brass Tacks Design in Norfolk, Va., has been redesigning papers for 30 years.

ALAN JACOBSON: Most newspapers use two metrics to measure success: readership and revenue. When you look at those two metrics, it’s the revenue that’s more important. Because we’re in business to make money.

Ad revenue is the Holy Grail. But readership is what motivates advertisers to choose a particular venue.

So many newspapers came to the Poynter Institute for advice on what format to use that the institute decided to study what formats readers like best.

Poynter studied nearly 600 people. Project director Sara Quinn describes the equipment used.

QUINN: Kind of the conventional wisdom was that people tended to scan when they were reading online but maybe not read too much of the text itself. But we found that in print, they were reading a little bit less than readers were online.

Once online readers choose a story, they read about three-quarters of it. In a broadsheet, people read nearly two-thirds of a story — and only a little more than half in a tabloid.

Poynter also looked at story forms — for instance, long narrative versus mainly graphics with catchy bullets, something readers liked best. Still, Poynter didn’t look at content itself, which Alan Jacobson says is key.

JACOBSON: For instance, if you had a 2,000-inch story about Princess Diana, any Anglophile will read every column inch of that story regardless of the format. I worked with an editor once who told me, “Alan, they will read it if we print it on a paper bag, if they care about it.”

If Jacobson is right, but newsholes keep shrinking, is there still hope for print?

In Florida, I’m Lyn Millner for Marketplace.

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