Jonathan Dodd: Reports of newspapers' death greatly exaggerated

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Younger people are placing more interest in newspapers than they did in 2006. Photo / APN
Younger people are placing more interest in newspapers than they did in 2006. Photo / APN

It's common knowledge that print newspapers have been closing down around the world, failing to adapt to the shift of advertising revenue to online alternatives and the simultaneous migration of readers to free online options.

So research out this week provides a glimmer of hope for newspapers, and also an interesting lesson for businesspeople in the law of unintended consequences and the need to measure what's really important.

The research in question comes from two McKinsey Media and Entertainment News surveys (2006 and 2009), reported on by Philipp Nattermann of McKinsey's Media and Entertainment Practice. Both surveys had samples of more than 2000 respondents and were conducted in Britain.

The first result worth noting is news stories themselves are not losing importance - in fact, the opposite is true.

Some may bemoan peoples' increasing need for a 24/7 newsfix and instant commentary but the net result of the almost overwhelming proliferation of newsfeeds has been that people are consuming more news than they were four years ago: the average amount of daily news consumption increasing from 60 to 72 minutes between 2006 and 2009.

Especially noteworthy is that these increases have been largest for those aged under 35 years. This need for constant, instantaneous news updates means television and the internet are predictably the news sources of most interest.

Not unexpectedly the internet has gained preference as a news source since 2006 (while preferences for television stagnate), but of particular interest is that younger people are placing more interest in newspapers than they did in 2006 - 10 per cent more of those aged under 35 now cite interest in newspapers as a news source.

Although the McKinsey article does not offer much comment on this result, it is clear that the inundation of news content from digital media is raising the overall level of awareness among the population when it comes to the news issues of the day.

Time once was that many young people would be turned off reading longer, more comprehensive newspaper articles because they were unfamiliar with the subject.

Today, the constant stream of snippet news means that the average punter will now approach a longer, more thoughtful piece of journalism from a more informed starting point than before - thereby making newspapers more interesting and accessible.

In some way, the inundation of web-sourced news is actually making the content within print newspapers more appealing.

This desire for simplification as an antidote to a busy world has been discussed in the Herald before, perhaps best demonstrated by the fact that people are actually watching more television rather than less.

Thus settling back with a newspaper does have some advantages compared with yet more screen time.

Blogs, Twitter feeds and specialist websites may have their uses, but the manner in which newspapers offer a credible one-stop shop of local news does actually suit the increasingly time-pressured lifestyles we lead.

Perhaps as younger people age and seek more passive pursuits, their web and TV-fuelled increased interest in news will feed in nicely to the more relaxing nature of newspapers.

The second result of interest from the McKinsey survey highlights that the choice of metric on which a product's performance is rated can be crucial.

For decades the standard metrics for selling advertising in newspapers have been readership numbers among the target demographic, combined with other factors such as display ads versus classifieds, specified locations and other factors that can increase the prominence of the advertisement - and its value.

But all these measures just play one form of ad against another within the same publication.

The survey by McKinsey, and a similar one conducted by Synovate a few years ago, examined the degree of preference that consumers have for advertising across the different media.

Both the McKinsey and Synovate research found that interruptive advertising that gets in the way of a person's activity (eg TV, radio, and even online pop-up ads) is considerably less liked and accepted than advertising that can be viewed at one's leisure (ie, in print).

The McKinsey survey found 66 per cent agreeing that newspaper advertising is "informative and confidence inspiring" compared with just 44 per cent for TV, 30 per cent for radio and 12 per cent of pop-up ads.

Still in this vein, the proportion claiming that newspaper advertisements were annoying was 38 per cent, well behind the numbers annoyed by ads on TV (50 per cent), radio (65 per cent) and online pop-ups (a whopping 88 per cent).

While likeability of advertising does not always predict effectiveness, it doesn't hurt - and it is clear from this research that people will generally react better to newspaper advertisements than those in other media.

The McKinsey researcher concludes: "To survive in the digital age, newspapers will need to develop deeper skills - for example, in managing advertiser relationships and gaining customer insights - and they must walk a fine line to retain editorial independence and quality to capture these opportunities.

"But for those who get it right, the rewards could be significant."

Thus newspapers have to concentrate on the quality of their audience's interactions with their advertising, not just the raw number - a case of measuring brains, not eyeballs.

* Jonathan Dodd is based at market research company Synovate.

- NZ Herald

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