Newspaper Audience Research – A Q&A

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Image by Ben Sutherland posted via Creative Commons CC BY 2.0

Audience research is essential for a newspaper to remain relevant and generate revenue, but some publishers fail to garner adequate audience feedback.

Q1. Why is audience research important to newspapers?

Some newspapers think they don’t need audience research. “We have traffic data,” they say. “That’s what really matters, because it’s the traffic that provides the income.” That’s true, of course, but that’s only half the picture.

Think of it in terms of cause and effect. A newspaper can make changes – in editorial content, in distribution or in some other area. It’s the reason. The end effect is circulation, but it is a long delayed effect. Many surveys show that people get tired of something – including a newspaper – long before they stop using it.

Had regular audience research been done beforehand, the decreasing level of reader dissatisfaction could have been tracked. In short, one of the benefits of audience research is that it can reduce the disconnect between perceptions and actions.

A simpler and more general reason to do audience research is that understanding audience helps journalists and editors stay in touch with the needs and capabilities of readers.

Q2. What are some common misconceptions newspapers have about their audience?

One of the most common misconceptions, especially in developing countries, is to assume that the public is as well informed as journalists. What journalists sometimes don’t realize is that they are among the most literate people in their country.

For example, a few years ago we did some research in Papua New Guinea, where the official language is English, but most people speak Pidgin or a tribal language. Even for people who understand English, it is a second language for everyone. The journalists’ fluency in English was most impressive; they could have worked on newspapers in any English speaking country. However, the audience research found that most viewers had a hard time understanding the nuances of the reports: reporters learned that the level of English was too advanced for their readers.

Another misconception concerns the regularity of reading. It’s too easy to assume that if you have a circulation of 100,000 every day, it’s the same 100,000 readers. Often, in fact, there are a large number of casual readers, who may only see the newspaper once a week – if so. This suggests that reporters should recap the stories, in case some readers haven’t caught up with the news from the previous days. And that brings us to another misconception – not so common, but we’ve noticed it a lot. Again, this is more of an implied guess than a clear misconception: that readers of a newspaper do not get news from other sources. In many countries, the radio is the most common source of official information.

Due to the frequency of news on the radio, many people who read news in a newspaper will not see it for the first time. They already know the headlines, but they probably read the newspaper because they want more detail than the short radio reports provide. They don’t care if it’s yesterday’s news rather than today’s. They often want to understand not only what happened, but why and how it happened.

Q3. What are the concrete benefits of a better understanding of your audience?

The most concrete benefit is that if journalists understand the audience, the audience will understand the stories better. Readers will receive information that is relevant to them and that will help them make decisions – in everything from the practicalities of daily life to deciding who to vote for in a national election.

Q4: What are some common pitfalls that newspapers wishing to conduct audience research can fall into?

One of the most common pitfalls we’ve come across, for newspapers and other media that conduct audience research, is putting all their eggs in one basket.

They spend a lot of money on a single large survey, leaving no budget for a follow-up survey. A hearing survey will generally raise as many questions as it answers. For example, “So 29% of our readers never look at the first page? Why could it be? Samples do not need to be large, and a research program consisting of a series of small-scale studies is generally more useful than a single large study.

A second trap is to underestimate the amount of work required for a survey. We have seen many organizations decide to do their own surveys. After all, it seems easy enough to write a quiz and get some people to take it. Usually what they do – if they get this far – is create a questionnaire with ambiguous questions and assemble an unrepresentative sample.

But then they have to analyze the data. They haven’t realized how much work is involved, nor the degree of thoroughness required in office work. The result is that many do-it-yourself surveys never get analyzed properly, and all the work that goes into them has been wasted.

Q5: Is it possible to conduct a good audience research inexpensively?

Audience research can be divided into two broad areas: (a) measuring audiences and (b) understanding audiences. An audience is normally measured in order to convince potential advertisers that the newspaper is worth publishing. As advertisers tend to be skeptical of such claims, it is usually necessary for a respected market research company to conduct an audience measurement survey to determine how many readers you have. It is expensive, although it is also worth it, if the advertising revenue obtained exceeds the cost of the survey.

Understanding the audience is much cheaper. The less you already know, the cheaper it is. We have developed several inexpensive methods for understanding audiences that are easy to implement and also provide high quality data. The consensus group technique, described in detail in our book “Know Your Audience” and on the Audience Dialogue website, is easy to learn and has few pitfalls.

Even a program of semi-structured interviews with readers can provide a wealth of information about audiences. Often only around 30 interviews are needed, each lasting about an hour.

Q6: What kinds of problems can newspapers encounter when conducting an unprofessional investigation?

A common problem with non-professional surveys is that they often obtain an unrepresentative sample. Sometimes this is done for economic reasons (by polling companies that give attractive quotes at low prices), and sometimes out of ignorance. This is almost always a problem with informal research.

There are many ways to collect a biased sample, and most of them overestimate audience size. For a survey to be accurate, all members of the population must have the same probability of participating. If this cannot be achieved – as it often is – you should at least be able to estimate the likely size and direction of any errors.

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