Think like a reader

One of the worst things about being a journalist is it takes an awful lot of the fun out of being a newspaper reader. It’s too easy to find yourself absorbed by spotting typos, groaning at missed opportunities in headlines, ripping pages out for follow up and feeling that curious stabbing pain when somebody got to a story before you could.

Indeed, there’s nothing worse than being in mid-page tear on public transport, and catching the eye of a fellow passenger who clearly believes you to be the sort of crazy person who rips out the horoscope. But I do fear that our closeness to the newspaper industry means that we don’t see papers like other readers do.

As an editor, I once found myself in a chastening focus group of one, when I sat opposite somebody reading my magazine on the train.

I felt a surge of pride as he carefully pulled it out of his briefcase. He briefly studied the cover, then turned immediately to the jobs section, read every ad carefully, and threw it back into his briefcase. Who knew that readers like the ads?

And I suspect that few senior newspaper personnel consume their publications like the readers do.

Based in Sydney, I’ve long been puzzled why the Sydney Morning Herald, recent rumblings aside, has persisted for so long with a weekday broadsheet format. Those senior enough to decide on format do not, I am almost certain, regularly ride the 380 bus from Bondi to the CBD in the rush hour.

The insight – that it’s impossible to read anything but a tabloid on busy public transport – would speed up that inevitable move to compact format, I’m sure. The same goes for journalists’ attitude to free newspapers like mX, which many look down upon.

But try standing at a railway station for five minutes. Watch the consumers swerve to grab a copy. They may only spend five minutes reading it. But it’s quality time, and they’re people who would not otherwise be reading a newspaper.

The point is that they go out of their way to do so.

Now imagine the potential of that publication – or one with the same publishing model – but with greater editorial resource.

Another assumption we’ve tended to make about readers is that bulk copies of paid-for newspapers are worthless – a trick to fool advertisers that circulation is bigger than it really is. (In part, that’s true. Even with changes to the audit rules, the definitions of what purports to be a paid-for copy are laughable.)

But that doesn’t mean that free papers are worthless to readers – if they actually end up in their hands. That copy of the Courier-Mail as you board a Qantas flight can mean half an hour of quality engagement with the editorial (and of course, the ads). But it only hit home for me when I stepped out of Fitness First a few days ago and realised that somehow I’d got through Monday without reading The Australian’s Media section.

As I’d walked in, there’d been a pile of complimentary The Australians by the door. A post workout treat awaited me. But by the time I walked out, somebody had snaffled the lot. The extreme grumpiness I experienced brought home that although the publication might be free, it certainly wasn’t worthless.

Yet for those of us who generally do our newspaper reading at our employer’s expense, and probably at our desks, that may not be a familiar experience.

And that, I think, is the challenge of understanding the economic realities of newspapers. Far too rarely do we experience our products like our readers do.

If we did, I think the products would be different.

Tim Burrowes is editor of media and marketing website Mumbrella

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