Part 4 in a series

Learning from readership surveys

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Despite differences in communities, publication sizes, questions and responses, a common result emerges from readership surveys conducted by SNPA members. People want local news.

Repeatedly, publishers interviewed for this series said the most significant finding from their surveys was that their readers valued local news, from the city council report to community announcements, the traditional bread and butter of newspapers. Whether it's in print or online, the local newspaper, especially in smaller places, is still seen as the source for the basics.

And, readers seem happy to be asked what they think. Publishers who are contemplating their own surveys should keep that in mind.

"Newspapers' main franchise today is the community, local news that you can't get anywhere else. I think that's fairly common," said Ted Stasney, founder of Marketing Analytics Insights Consulting Services in Florida.

Readership surveys are affordable even for the smallest newspaper. They can be done using private consultants or website-based formats. Publishers can modify standardized questions to fit their communities' idiosyncracies or make up their own.

No matter how a survey is conducted, publishers emphasize the importance of planning. "Think it through, plan it through, work it through," said Mitchell Lynch, publisher of The Daily News in Oenonta, N.Y.

As an executive, think about what you and your department leaders want to know and what your objectives are. Do you want to use the results to create new advertising campaigns, to assign resources for news coverage, to direct the editorial page or to drop or add a particular feature?

Also keep in mind that something unexpected might result, and the first readership survey may not be last.

For example, Tony Clark of The Tidewater News in Franklin, Va., said he hopes to do surveys twice a year and focus on different topics, such as content, style and distribution. 

"I think having done it once now I would be able to refine it a little bit more," Clark said. "I think it was a good first pass. I'm also going to do a reader survey again simply because I think it signals to the readers that we care about what they think."

Clark also said he found value in what he called "free-form" questions, those that left space for longer answers rather than asking for a simple "yes" or "no" or just a check from a series of responses. Some readers offered mini-essays.

In his column telling readers about the results of a survey by The Newnan Times-Herald in Georgia, Publisher John Winters assured them they're messages had been heard.

"This information is not going into some dark closet," he wrote. "Rather, we plan to focus on what the majority want to see – or not see – and use the data to continue improving your newspaper. Changes will continue to be made in coverage, look and focus. Opinions vary, and not everyone will like all the changes. But change, especially in our focus, needs to occur so we provide you what you want."

Editor's note: This is the conclusion of a four-part series on readership surveys. But it need not be the end of discussion on the topic. If you would like SNPA to explore further aspects of readership surveys, please send suggestions to Jane Nicholes at jbnicholes@att.net or Cindy Durham at cindy@snpa.org.

Read Part 1 from this series: Affordable readership research

Read Part 2 from this series: What do you want to know?

Read part 3 from this series: Encouraging results – usually

Jane Nicholes

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 jbnicholes@att.net.

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