I really have to wonder whether South Africa’s newspaper editors really are a humourless lot or whether the lighter side of life just isn’t on their radar screens?
These days editors are generally obliged to take very careful note of what readership research is telling them. And what readership research is telling them is that readers want serious stuff without any form of frivolity.
Trouble is, as far as I am concerned, a lot of readership research is absolute crap.
Especially that sort of readership research that asks readers what they like reading.
It is completely contrary to human nature for any self-respecting man, woman or child to sit in front of a researcher or fill in an online survey and answer the question about what the most important thing they read and say: “Oh, without doubt, I like the jokes at the back and then the cartoons and then if there is anything about who is bonking whom…”
Of course not. What they will say is: “I look the main news of the day, share prices, the leader page editorial and then global economic analyses…”
In precisely the same way that if you ask any human being what wine they like most, they will unhesitatingly respond by mentioned the most expensive brand they have ever heard of and not consider for a moment telling the truth about their economically induced preference for cheap plonk.
I have seen a lot of misguided readership research in my day.
The very first experience I had of it was when I was way back in the 1960s when the Natal Mercury did some research on what readers really wanted. As usual, the analysis came back showing quite clearly that readers wanted politics, opinion and analysis, business news and then sport.
About a year later the editor of the Mercury decided to move the paper’s extremely humorous Idler’s column from the back page to the centre of the paper to fall in line with most other newspapers by putting sport at the back.
The Mercury switchboard was jammed for three days solid with readers absolutely incensed about the change. Bear in mind, they were not complaining that the column had been dropped but just that it had just been moved.
What this showed was that something like 70% of Mercury readers actually rated the Idler’s column as the primary reason for buying the newspaper in the first place, even if they wouldn’t admit this in formal research.
I am not suggesting for a minute that all readership research has massive margins of error, but what I am saying is that news media management and editors need to be very careful about what a lot of readership research is perceived to suggest.
Most newspapers today carry less than two percent content that could raise a laugh at a push. However, I am not suggesting humour is the magic bullet that could revitalise newspapers again.
What I am emphatic about is that readership research clearly isn’t working otherwise newspapers would not be selling less than a quarter of what they used to. And newspapers sales would not be showing continuous declines year after year.
And another thing, it is no good only asking newspaper readers what they want to read but far more importantly one needs to ask former newspaper readers why they don’t read newspapers anymore.
Chris Moerdyk (@chrismoerdyk ) is a marketing analyst and advisor and owner of Moerdyk Marketing with many years of experience in marketing and the media as well as serving as non-executive director and chairman of companies.
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