What do you want to know?
Readership surveys aren't one-size-fits-all.
A set of questions asked in one survey can serve as a model for others. But a publisher contemplating a survey needs to take into account the community a newspaper serves, the type of response being sought and, most important, exactly what it is the publisher, news and advertising executives want to learn from readers.
Tony Clark of The Tidewater News in Franklin, Va., and Mitchell Lynch of The Daily Star in Oneonta, N.Y., are two publishers who took different approaches in recent months. Clark used SurveyMonkey for his do-it-yourself survey, while Lynch used Pulse Research with Ad Seller to put together a survey of nearly 100 questions for both the news and sales sides of his paper.
View the two surveys:
Results were instructive and sometimes surprising. (Some of the results will be discussed in the third part of this series of columns.)
"Here's what I wanted to know: What are we not printing that people want to see?" said Clark. "What are we not giving readers that they want, or, what are we not giving potential readers that they want?"
The Tidewater News, a Boone newspaper, publishes Wednesday, Friday and Sunday with a circulation of about 5,000. Clark spent about two days composing questions, which included several open-ended ones to which readers could write out responses rather than check an appropriate box. For example, respondents were asked how they thought the newspaper and online product could be improved.
"I wanted to leave it broad enough that people could just kind of tee up and really let us know what they were thinking," Clark said.
The Tidewater News emailed the survey link to about 4,000 people who had registered online to be able to comment on stories or receive a daily newsletter. There were 15 to 20 questions, depending on how readers answered early questions. About 450 people responded.
Clark limited the number of questions and focused on content, pricing and reading habits. The cost was less than $500.
"We wrote an editorial in the newspaper saying we were going to send out the surveys, so people would know what it was when they got it. I asked people to be just as blatantly honest as they felt they wanted to be."
In upstate New York, Lynch was especially concerned about The Daily Star's editorial positions, and sought to find out whether readers thought the paper was liberal, conservative or moderate. He also wanted to know whether a daily "good news" piece published on the front page was still popular.
But the survey also included numerous questions about readers' buying habits. A prize was offered to encourage people to take the time to respond. The survey was posted online but some telephone surveying also took place.
The Daily Star publishes Monday-Saturday, with the Saturday paper constituting its weekend edition. Its circulation varies seasonally but averages about 11,500. Cooperstown, home of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, is in the newspaper's coverage area.
The survey was done in April, but was in the making for two years, since Lynch took over as publisher of the CNHI paper. "We were trying to make sure we thought this through," Lynch said. "One hadn't been done here in over a decade. It was time to do one."
Asking readers what they think of their local paper is a necessary part of adapting to rapidly changing conditions in print and online, Lynch said.
"Are we doing the right thing?" he asked. "Are we on the right path? Are we listening to our readers? Newspapers can get arrogant and not listen. If they do, that's their downfall."
Coming next in this series: Some encouraging results
Read Part 1 from this series: Affordable readership research
If your newspaper has conducted a recent readership survey, we hope you will share a copy of your questionnaire with us. Email a copy to firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. SNPA's R&D partners also are encouraged to contact Nicholes to share information about the work they are doing with SNPA member newspapers.
Jane Nicholes is a freelance writer and editor based in Daphne, Ala., and a former editorial writer for the Press-Register in Mobile. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.