What do our customers think?

Reading-the-newspaper

This is the first in a series of what I hope will become a regular interview with a different news consumer each week. As I’ve mentioned before, there isn’t nearly enough information about what readers and viewers want. In general, there isn’t enough treatment of news as a business although that’s changing. And if news IS a business, then it naturally follows that news content is, to some degree, a product. Thus, we should know what our consumers think.

I will be looking to talk to people who are not themselves employed by any media organization and asking them about their news consumption habits, what they think of the current state of news and journalism, etc. I already have someone lined up for next week, but if you’re interested in being interviewed in the future, please fill out this form.

I found my first interviewee, Bob Meinig, on Twitter. He replied to something I posted and that got the discussion going. It then moved to e-mail and that’s when I came up with the weekly series idea. In the coming weeks, I will be formatting these profiles in a Q &A format. For this one though, Bob’s own words speak for themselves. I asked him to describe his news consumption habits and how they’ve changed over the years. Here’s what he wrote to me in an e-mail:

Where to start . . . I was an early reader, my mother says that I could read basic Dr. Seuss books when I was two.  So in context, I’ve always been a fan of the written word.

When I was a kid, my parents would go bowling on Saturday nights and bring back the early Sunday edition of the Tribune.  I’d spend hours reading as much of the paper as I could — the business section, the Sunday magazine, everything.  During the week we received the Joliet Herald-News.  The difference between the two in content, style, and tone was striking even to a grade school kid.

That was 30 years ago.  I don’t think I’ve ever gone terribly long without having a (physical) newspaper subscription.  At college I had to have the Trib student subscription.  Usually one of my buddies would have a Sun-Times subscription.  Every now and then someone would bring a New York Times in — reading it was like entering a different world.  Over the past 15 or so years, we’ve had the Tribune, the Sun-Times, the Daily-Herald, and now the KC Chronicle delivered.

Back in the late-’90s, I ran a small website that critiqued the Chicago sports media.  Through that I sat on press row for a few sporting events and talked with a few people within the industry.

Even since the advent of basically free news on the Internet, I’ve still kept delivery of the physical paper.  But my expectation of what I get has changed; I expect to get pure “this is what is happening” news via the various news feeds on say, Yahoo or CNN.  The analysis of what events mean is a bigger job, and for that I’m willing to wait a bit.  Also, local news is worth getting from the local paper.  I can’t expect that it’s very cost-effective for the Tribune or the STNG to cover Kane County like the Chronicle does — and even if they tried to, they wouldn’t have the focus that the Chronicle does.  I’m OK with that.

I did cut the Trib subscription back to Sunday-only when the layoffs picked up steam and the redesign of the paper obliterated relevant sections.  Seeing talented writers leave in favor of lower-priced talent was the wrong way to keep my business.  I know that there’s two sides to that story; many people wanted to leave and took the opportunity offered to them.  And since costs certainly needed to be cut, labor is going to be the first and easiest area to make cuts in.  But the product was greatly devalued at that point.

What I’m not able to grasp is really where the Tribune or the STNG fits in the news world now and in the future.  I might be in the minority — heck, probably — but what I get from the NYT’s Technology section just absolutely blows away what the Trib or S-T does. Same for the Health or National News sections.  The Trib’s business section is now a shell of what it once was — I can blow through it in a few minutes.  Local?  I skim it, same as I do with the National section.

(I will say that the Trib has started to rebuild its sports section with some decent writers.  That’s one section that will probably always resonate with readers, so business-wise that’s probably been a smart decision.)

So given that on one side the local paper does a decent job at covering the truly local news, and CNN or the NYT (just to give two examples) typically provide better and more insightful national-level news and commentary than a Trib or S-T does, where does that leave those two?  The Trib wants to be a regional paper (or maybe more accurately, a paper that purports to be state-level), but is that really sustainable?  Is that something that any paper can do well?  How are the blurry lines defining the Tribs’ position in the landscape defined?

Wow. 

He went on to add the following:

I can’t count the number of times we haven’t even taken the Sunday Trib out of its bag before Monday night or Tuesday . . . or just pitched it into the recyling bin, unread on Wednesday morning.  Even on the days I do read the Trib, it takes me about 15 minutes or so to skim through the whole paper.

The Chronicle gets read every morning.

Here I was nodding along because I admit that our Sunday Chicago Tribune receives similar treatment. If I’m being honest, most of the paper never gets read by me. We’re keeping it for now so that my husband has something to read on his Metra commute (though he too could chuck the paper and read it on his iPhone). I read things mainly online. Only books are read in their physical form.  

But back to Bob.

Realizing that his age might play a role in his opinions, I asked him how old he is. 41, he answered. That would mean that his age group, like all others, is reading newspapers less. In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll turn 30 in late August and my husband is 33.

Obviously what we’re getting at here is that Bob isn’t getting what he wants from the Tribune and Sun-Times. Other than a few bright spots, I can’t say that I feel too differently. Having recently talked to more and more people about this, I’ve been told that the newspaper used to really be something. Some reporters or columnists were truly a must-read. How many people like that are working in newsrooms now?

I went on to ask Bob if he perceives his experience to be similar to those of others. He responded thusly:

Not sure about how most people feel — there’s not too many people who give much more thought to the media other than what used to be the “Mariotti/Bayless/Page/Thomas/etc sucks” type of argument.  I do know that my wife doesn’t spend anywhere close to the amount of time reading the paper as she used to.

It’s a time of great change in the industry (as it is in many industries), but there’s something about the news media that hits me hard. We need it to function well, but we’re also seeing businessmen like a Sam Zell (for instance) that don’t really understand the product, and what it means to people.  It seems that what they think the business model is doesn’t equate to what I think it is.  And I’m not sure who is right, but then: who is the customer?

BINGO.

What are your thoughts? I’m particularly interested in hearing back from Tribune or Sun-Times employees. You may remain anonymous if you’d like.

Don’t forget to come back next week to learn what another news consumer thinks. Or just subscribe to the RSS feed.

6 Comments

  1. Anonymous June 17, 2010

    I was fascinated by Bob Meinig’s remarks. I’m the Trib Nation manager at the Chicago Tribune, and so spend a lot of time listening to readers, and making sure it’s easy for readers and reporters to talk with one another.

    Like Bob, a lot of readers were upset with what were essentially a lot of changes at once at the Chicago Tribune: New owners, new staff size (that was an unpleasant year), new design and new editorial focus.

    Economics drove our staff size but, along with it, we wanted to make sure we could continue to exist at that size — so we wouldn’t have to cut again. That gets into our new editorial focus, which is to provide more local watchdog, enterprise, consumer-focused and Chicago-oriented news. The stuff you can’t get from the kinds of newspapers Tribune readers also read.

    Frustration has quieted down. We still hear from readers who miss a former writer, or would like to see more national or foreign coverage. But a lot of that still exists online — The Los Angeles Times shares that content with us, just as we share content out of our Washington Bureau.

    But wherever the Chicago Tribune goes in the future, it’s not going to get there without staying in close contact with our readers. It’s the 21st century, after all, and people kind of expect to have that kind of access.

    If you or any of your readers want to reach me, I’m at jjanega@tribune.com, 312-222-3781 and @JamesJanega on twitter.

    And thanks, Anna, for drawing this to everyone’s attention.

    — James Janega

  2. Anna Tarkov June 18, 2010

    James, can you be more specific about what those economics were/are? How much does the Tribune spend on staff now vs. before? How much of that staff is ad people? How many in marketing? Etc.

  3. Anonymous June 18, 2010

    I go around and around in my head where things have gone wrong . . . is it me? Am I out of touch, or am I so unique in what I expect that I’m not really relevant?

    One thing I’ve batted around for a while is that just because we *can* get something via the web at any time, doesn’t mean that we *shouldn’t* get that same information in print. Take baseball stats for instance. I can get up-to-date stats dished up any way at any time via many sources on the web. But as a newspaper reader, I still look at the tiny bit of stats that the papers give us. If the Trib would print the full list of pitching and hitting stats every Sunday like it used to, I’d still spend time going through it, and probably catching up on some reading that I’ll invariably skip over the first time through the paper. Now there’s your sticky content in print form. (I’m ignoring the cost of the space as an argument as I really don’t have an idea what that would be.)

    That’s just one example. I do realize that ideas need to be tried out, and that some might sound great in theory and not work in practice (and vice-versa).

    My biggest complaint after the Trib’s redesign was that the paper was trying to be a print version of the web entity. If I want to read one-liner comments on articles, I’ll go to the web. Content length and importance of copy editing don’t necessarily translate between the two mediums either.

  4. Anna Tarkov June 18, 2010

    Bob, that’s a great point. I think publishers are learning (though maybe not quickly enough) that print and online are two different mediums and you can’t just slap the same content up in both places. Part of the problem is the glacial pace by which things work in a newsroom. And after a panel discussion I attended last night, I’ve realized another problem is that people in leadership positions sometimes don’t even have the time to think about these matters. They’re too busy trying to keep their heads above water. That’s why smaller, more independent, possibly online-only operations are the way forward.

  5. Craig Newman July 6, 2010

    Some interesting points from Bob. Thanks for posting this, Anna.
    I don’t pretend to speak for the Sun-Times, though I do work there. I would suggest, though, that STNG, if specifically discussing our news service, would always have a place in the local reporting sphere. At it’s most basic, it’s a rolling snapshot of hyperlocal news that in many ways is the lifeblood of many different media orgs and a foundation of community reporting.
    As a media consumer in addition to employee, I share some of his frustrations, but like that he has a local paper that he can depend on, which is basically what most of us are striving to do at some level. But this is a difficult age to produce news content in, when almost every consumer has a different notion and idea of how news should be structured and who is qualified to report it.
    The Web is shotgun coverage – everything in one big blast, blown to the wind at high velocity. The print issue should be able to take a step back and explain what was whizzing by our heads the day before, often organized in a much easier to digest format than online offerings. The two sides do not always synch up as well as they should. And out ability to be everything to everyone is a growing process often as frustrating for us as it is the reader.
    At the most basic, to parrot James to a degree, our successful moments going into the immediate future will be when we have a running conversation with our consumers. Answering questions and telling them something they didn’t know about their world using give-and-take at every level is a critical task in the modern newsroom. And making use of all the media we have available as complementary pieces of the reporting puzzle will likely make it a necessity to strengthen and depend upon all platforms equally into the foreseeable future.

  6. Anna Tarkov July 6, 2010

    Craig, I agree that the print product can give more insight and deeper analysis than online when it comes to a daily newspaper. In fact, there is some indication from the latest interview that news consumers would like there to be less of a focus on breaking news: http://annatarkov.posterous.com/what-do-our-customers-think-1

    I also think it’s right that you’re thinking about STNG in terms of what their value proposition should be to readers. The Tribune has made the strategic shift to what they view are their core competencies. One of those is the Chicago Experience, as they call it. The others are watchdog reporting, hyper-local coverage and community involvement and there are others I believe (James, correct me if I’m wrong about anything here). They’ve realized they cannot be all things to all people so they have focused on the areas they feel they are best at and, I assume, the ones that are most likely to bring in the revenue to sustain their news gathering. So far, I don’t see STNG doing the same and that’s something that needs to start sooner rather than later. Understand of course that I’m not saying the Tribune is doing awesome and they’ve got it all figured out. That’s not at all the case. But they are moving much more nimbly. If you ever want to hear ideas for what STNG could do to profit AND build a future for themselves, I have a few. You know where to find me :)

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