Newspaper audience research – a Q & A

Some questions and answers on newspaper audience research

<a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/bensutherland/8365261138" target="_new">Image by Ben Sutherland</a> released via <a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/" target="_blank">Creative Commons CC BY 2.0</a>
Image by Ben Sutherland released via Creative Commons CC BY 2.0

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

Q1. Why is audience research important for newspapers?

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

Think of it in terms of cause and effect. A newspaper might make some change – in editorial content, distribution, or another area. That is the cause. The end-effect is the circulation, but that is a long-delayed effect. There is a lot of evidence from surveys that people get tired of something – including a newspaper – long before they stop using it.

If regular audience research had been done beforehand, the decreasing level of reader dissatisfaction could have been tracked. In short, one advantage of audience research is that it can reduce the time-lag between perceptions and actions.

A simpler and more general reason for doing audience research is that understanding the audience helps journalists and editors keep in touch with the needs and abilities of the readers.

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

One of the most common misconceptions, particularly in developing countries, is an assumption that the audience is as well-informed as the journalists. What the journalists sometimes don’t realize is that they are among the most highly literate people in their country.

For example, a few years ago we organized 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’s a second language for all of them. The journalists’ command of English was most impressive; they could have worked on newspapers in any English-speaking country. However, the audience research found that most of the audience had great trouble understanding the nuances of the reports: the journalists learned that the level of English was too advanced for their readers.

Another misconception is about the regularity of reading. It is all 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 is a large pool of occasional readers, who might only see the newspaper once a week – if that. This suggests that journalists should recap stories, in case some readers haven’t caught up with the previous days’ news. And that brings us to another misconception – not so common, but we have noticed it often. Again, it’s more an implicit assumption than a clear misconception: that readers of a newspaper don’t get news from other sources. In many countries, radio is the most common source of formal news.

Because of the frequency of radio news, many people who read news in a newspaper will not be seeing it for the first time. They will already know the headlines, but they are probably reading the newspaper because they want more detail than brief radio bulletins supply. They don’t care so much that it is yesterday’s news rather than today’s. They often want to understand not simply what has happened but why and how it has happened.

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

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

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

One of the most common traps we’ve encountered, for newspapers and other media that actually do conduct audience research, is to put all their eggs into one basket.

They spend a lot of money on one large survey, leaving no budget for carrying out a follow-up survey. An audience survey will usually raise as many questions as it answers. For example, “So 29 percent of our readers never look at the front page? Why could that be?” Samples don’t need to be large, and a research program consisting of a series of small-scale studies is usually more helpful than one big study.

A second trap is to underestimate the amount of work needed in a survey. We’ve seen many organizations decide to do their own surveys. After all, it seems easy enough to write a questionnaire and get some people to answer it. Usually what they do – if they get that far – is create a questionnaire with ambiguous questions, and gather an unrepresentative sample.

But then they have to analyze the data. They haven’t realized how much work is involved, nor the degree of rigor needed in the clerical work. The result is that a lot of do-it-yourself surveys are never analyzed properly, and all the work that went into them has been wasted.

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

Audience research can be divided into two broad areas: (a) measuring the audience, and (b) understanding the audience. An audience is normally measured in order to convince potential advertisers that the newspaper is worth advertising in. 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. This is expensive – though it is also worthwhile, if the advertising revenue gained outweighs the cost of the survey.

To understand the audience is much cheaper. The less you already know, the cheaper it is. We’ve developed several low-cost methods of understanding audiences, that are easy to carry out and also provide high-quality data. The consensus group technique, described in detail in our book “Know Your Audience” as well as on the Audience Dialogue website, can be easily learned and has few pitfalls.

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

Q6: What kind of problems can newspapers encounter when they conduct an unprofessional survey?

A common problem with unprofessional surveys is that they often obtain an unrepresentative sample. Sometimes this is done for economic reasons (by survey companies that give attractively cheap quotations), and sometimes out of ignorance. This is almost always a problem with informal research.

There are many ways to gather a biased sample, and most of those ways result in overestimating the audience size. For a survey to be accurate, everybody in the population must have the same probability of taking part. If this can’t be achieved – as is often the case – you at least need to be able to estimate the likely size and direction of any error.