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From DESIGN, Spring 2006

Prescription for newspapers that want to increase readership and revenue

Readership Institute and Brass Tacks Design square off, identify the biggest problem – then propose a solution

By Alan Jacobson, Brass Tacks Design

Mea culpa. I was wrong.

In the current issue of Design, published by the Society for News Design, I wrote, "Raise your RBS, and The Readership Institute predicts that you'll increase your readership and your circulation."

But this is not true. And The Readership Institute's Mary Nesbitt was quick to correct me, saying:

"We do not claim, and never have claimed, that increases in RBS (reader behavior score) will automatically increase circulation...In fact, we have often pointed out that a newspaper can have increased RBS and flat to declining circulation."

Mary and I sparred and parried for many days. But ultimately we found ourselves in violent agreement on one thing – newspapers need to do much, much more than they're doing to move the needle. And they need to do it now.

We'll offer up some strong medicine and a challenge. But first, let's clear the air.

Straight talk on readership, circulation and penetration

Jacobson: I wasn't the only person to misunderstand the value of RBS. Last week an editor asked me, "why work on improving RBS if you are not confident that a rise in circulation will follow?"

Another editor was more strident, saying "Seems like the Readership emperor is wearing no clothes if he can't help circulation numbers – I thought the Institute was about capturing younger readers and reversing the downward slide in ABC figures."

Nesbitt: We think – and the industry increasingly agrees – that readership is the primary (though not the only) metric; we have never used circulation as an outcome in our research. You need to first get people engaged with the newspaper, or the news–whatever, before you have any hope of getting them to plunk down money.

Jacobson: But publishers want the results of any changes to be meaningful to advertisers and stockholders. I don't believe advertisers or Wall Street care about readership. They only care about the traditional metrics – circulation and revenue.

Nesbitt: The Readership Institute has never promised to deliver results that will make advertisers and stockholders happy. What a ridiculous claim that would be – for anybody to make. But we do claim to give news organizations insights into consumers that will help them build better news products with a better chance of being read or used.

Jacobson: I think newspapers are telling themselves that advertisers are accepting the readership metric because they want to believe it's true. Advertisers know circulation is falling – newspapers can't fool them.

Rising readership doesn't mask the problem if a market is growing faster than readership is rising. I believe penetration is dropping everywhere – even where circulation and readership is rising.

Nesbitt: Both circulation and penetration data are out there publicly and have been for decades – this is not a new problem. The point about readership is that it's a much richer gauge of usage. Television doesn't measure how many TV sets are in a house when they report audience size, nor websites how many computers with Internet access. It's not a matter of trying to fool anyone. Let the media be measured against each other in an equitable and comparable way

An alternative approach

Jacobson: All the numbers aren't working for us, but there might be another way to skin this cat – if advertisers like and read the paper, they believe other people do, too. This isn't based on a metric, it's a gut feeling. I bet advertisers are feeling as if the paper is less and less relevant. That's why papers need to change their content and design – so that advertisers will believe people will see their message because they believe people are reading the paper.

I had great success with a redesign years ago – ad revenue jumped 41% because advertisers loved the product and believed people would see their message, even though we offered no data to encourage this belief.

Nesbitt: I do agree that newspapers have to battle the perception of being irrelevant – but they also have to put some legs under that perception by taking some major steps to show, every day, through their content (and ad content, service and marketing), that they've got a new groove.

Our research says shows that while people have certain positive "experiences" with newspapers, they're not positive strong – kind of tepid. And there are quite a number of inhibiting experiences as well. So the answer is not to keep doing what's always been done, and hope that the results will be different.

So what's the solution?

Jacobson: My clients keep citing RI's initiatives as if they're a silver bullet. If they aren't, then why bother?

Nesbitt: Because throwing up one's hands in despair is not a responsible response! What, we're just going to watch the ship go down?

While everyone would like to believe in a silver bullet, no one we've met thinks we've got it. As we wrote in a report "Reaching New Readers: Revolution, Not Evolution," tweaks or incremental improvements, limited to a single department and not cross–company, are not enough. This is not a message people want to hear, but we say it, write it, teach it.

We find often that attention is focused on editorial content – and not on circulation, or marketing, or ad content as well. As we've said and written countless times, it has to be a whole–paper effort, and the changes need to be big.

Jacobson: Mary, you've hit the nail on the head. Newspapers gotta get out of their silos.

Our work often begins in editorial. But I deliver the same message to every client: If you want to increase circulation and revenue you need to do all the right things and do them well – not only in editorial but also in circulation, advertising, production and marketing.

A case in point: Most papers cite "no time to read," as the number one reason subscribers stop the paper. Typically, newspapers attack this problem in the newsroom with shorter stories, more briefs, etc.

The second most commonly cited reason is service. Yet I can't think of a single paper that pursued this problem in production and circulation along with a newsroom effort to boost circulation.

Solving a service problem might require changing editorial and advertising deadlines – something that could only be achieved with a coordinated, enterprise–wide initiative.

On the other hand, our research has found that classified is a very effective driver of readership. We've had several editors make sacrifices in the editorial product to enhance classified based on their belief in this research. This is what I mean by a coordinated, enterprise–wide solution.

Nesbitt: The Hamilton (Ontario) Spectator is illustrative of several things – revolution in thinking and doing, not evolution; a test–and–measure approach; a commitment to strong and impactful "serious journalism" as well as to fun journalism. They continue to innovate. They don't pretend to have all the answers. They've got guts, and it's paid off for them.

Strong medicine

Jacobson: So what do we propose for newspapers that want to increase readership and revenue? First and foremost, they need to...
  • Make the effort enterprise wide. Most readership initiatives begin and end in the newsroom. All departments must be fully engaged – and not merely informed – in what's going on. And all departments must be actively pursuing the same goals.
Nesbitt: Yes, and newspapers must...
  • Do the research. They continue to make too many decisions based solely on what they think customers should need or want – an inside–out approach. They can't engage readers and advertisers unless they learn directly from them.
Jacobson: Which leads to content and the need to...
  • Change the definition of news. According to Ed Miller, "Better journalism is not the answer." Editors have always placed the highest value on what's most important with a capital "I." But information that is relevant, compelling and interesting is just as valuable to readers as the traditional notion of news.
Nesbitt: I couldn't agree more. We have to start with where readers are, not where we wish they were, or think they should be. News organizations also need to not just do the basics well, but also tackle the much harder task of...
  • Really engaging the audiences' heads and hearts. Many papers have pursued some of the basic initiatives outlined in RI's Eight Imperatives for Growing Readership. But few papers have pursued all of them to the requisite level, together, and deeply. And even fewer have tackled the recommendations in the New Readers Study – all the stuff about enhancing the consumer experiences that we know are linked with higher readership. They represent the next level of connection with readers, and it's challenging stuff to implement.
Jacobson: Next they need to...
  • Promote as if success depends upon it. Because it does. Newspapers need to use outside media to promote themselves. Newspapers sell advertising. Shouldn't they act as if they believe in it?
Nesbitt: And finally, they need to...
  • Follow through. Initiatives don't end when they are implemented. That's only the beginning. New content initiatives have to be underpinned by new systems and processes, new expectations, and that means following through on their initiatives with every employee every day. This is not sexy stuff – it's hard, grinding work. But it's essential to make change stick.
Download case studies on four newspapers that boosted readership and revenue by following these strategies.

That old bugaboo – change

Nesbitt: Change is slow, painful and frustrating in newspapers. Our research on newspaper culture has documented why that is.

We sometimes encounter newspapers that say "we've tried it all with no results." But what feels a big effort internally may not be enough of an effort in consumers' eyes.

Jacobson: Clearly, the best we think we can do hasn't been enough. Years ago, Knight Ridder tried an "experiment" with the paper they owned in Boca Raton, FL. There was a lot of innovation, but not much bottom–line success. Newspapers have pointed to this example as a reason not to change.

But without change there is no hope. The trend line is clear. Newspapers must make broad and deep changes even when it is contrary to their culture and experience.

And now, our challenge

Jacobson: Mary and I believe news organizations can move the needle if they follow the recommendations we make and carry them through enterprise wide. But they'll never know until they try.

Some of the newspapers the Readership Institute has worked with have seen readership gains and some of my clients have turned around circulation slides and boosted revenue. Not everyone has enjoyed this success because they haven't brought their A-game.

We've talked about the kind of newspaper that would be willing to step up to the plate – to make the investment in time and money, then follow through and win.

It will probably take an independent paper with the financial freedom to make this kind of investment. Or maybe a forward-looking group that is willing to invest in one of its papers as a learning laboratory.

There is only one guarantee. You can't win if you don't play.

Alan Jacobson can be reached at

Read the story that sparked the debate between The Readership Insititute and Brass Tacks Design.

Read the follow-up Q&A between Alan Jacobson and the Society of News Design's Web editor, Rich Boudet.