Who Reads Local Newspapers, and Why?

February 7, 2010

Man Reading Local Newspaper

As we started to go into in our first post, the question we want to answer with Civic Edition is: What would the local newspaper business look like if it where invented today? If we were to forget everything that we know about how local newspapers have worked in the past and build a system from the ground up for delivering local news to consumers, how would we do this?

As always, since our core knowledge is business, we want to approach this exercise as a business problem, and the first step in solving any business problem is market analysis. This consists of asking two very important questions. First, who are our customers? Well, at first, you might simply answer: “the readers.” But, in fact, you’d only be half right. While the readers are the most important set of customers, there is another set of customers, which the traditional local newspaper industry has dubbed “advertisers.” So there are really two separate markets of customers who we need to cater to, and this is something that is important to make clear. For now, however, we will concentrate on the readers, and we’ll devote another post to our friends, the advertisers, somewhere down the line.

The second question we need to ask in our market analysis is: Why are our customers interested in our product? Or in this case: Why do people read local newspapers? In thinking about this question I decided to take a survey of my friends and family to find out just what they get out of local newspapers (not the most scientific method, granted, but a start nonetheless). What I found is that there are three main categories of services that people seek to get from their local newspaper, and not all of them are really all that related to journalism (surprise!). First of all, people are looking for what I like to call “nosey neighbor information.” They want to find out who got arrested for public drunkenness this week, how much their neighbor’s house sold for, or how much public officials in the community receives as a salary. This is mostly trivial information, at the outer fringe of what might be called “journalism,” and yet these things are important to people. The second category is a slightly tamer version of the first, non-scandalous information about people they know, such as a story about a school field trip to a foreign country or the final score of the local high school football game. Even better is any story involving the name of a friend or family member. People simply love to see their own name or the name of someone they are close to in print. This information would still seem relatively trivial to an outsider, but on a local level it drives more interest than you would expect. Finally, the third category I noticed is what I call “timely information” information that either affects people in a practical day to day kind of way, such as school schedules, when businesses will be open, or official local government information; or on the other hand reporting and editorial work on pressing issues, the more hard journalism of the local newspaper.

Blogger and local newspaper journalist, Chris O’brien notices much the same phenomenon in his recent post, “Future of Local News About More than Paid Content,” this being that what we normally call “journalism,” hard reporting on key issues, is only a fraction of what people actually look for in a local newspaper. He notes that the local newspaper, at least at its height of popularity, was essentially a product that offered “about 50 different services for people. It helped people figure out where to shop. It delivered a boatload of coupons every Sunday. It helped them plan their weekend. It entertained them with comics and puzzles. It let them know what was on the school lunch menu. And along the way, it also delivered journalism.” In this way, the local newspaper is more than just a vehicle for information, it’s a sort of community hub. But as other online media have started to fulfill many of these functions, local newspapers are beginning to lose many of their readers, making journalism something of an innocent casualty of this overzealous technological revolution.

If the local newspaper industry were to be invented today, it would probably look a lot like a social networking site, only on a local level. In fact the parallels between local newspapers and Facebook or Craigslist are unavoidable. The same “nosey neighbor” impulse drives people to check their friends’ postings every hour, while their need to see their name in print drives them to make their own postings. And Craigslist users now find all of the personals and classifieds that they used to look for in the local paper online. While this is a big change that cannot be denied, local newspapers still have a hold on a major segment of the community who look to them for these kinds of services. What local papers need to do then is to continue delivering what their readers want while adapting to the new ways that they are beginning to use and access information, moving with, rather than fighting against the wave.

Our feeling is that we need to find a way to recouple hard journalism with all of the other types of services which used to be performed by local newspapers but are now being quickly absorbed by social networking sites. Whether you agree or not, we’d love to see your comments.

Think Outside the Newsstand,

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