Grey Cardigan: September column

I’D RATHER spend a day in John Prescott’s underpants than two hours in a Focus Group.

These instruments of torture for any newspaper editor are forced upon us by a management seeking answers, but rarely result in anything constructive and can often be downright dangerous.

The concept is simple. We pay a dozen punters (a mixture of regular readers, occasional readers and non-readers) £10 an hour to sit in a shitty Travelodge conference room, consuming warm white wine and soggy Hula Hoops, and ask them to tell us what they think of our newspaper. We then go away and implement their suggestions, sales soar, advertisers flock back, and it’s doubles all round in the boardroom. The reality is somewhat different.

The first stumbling block is the make-up of the panel. We haven’t got the money to recruit a demographically-accurate sample, so it’s a case of a couple of ads in the Evening Beast and a card in the local JobCentre. Anyone who manages to respond without using letters cut out from our pages then goes into a hat. The arbitrary dozen are then selected, as in six regular readers, four occasional readers and two non-readers.

(I’ve never really understood why the non-readers are there. What on earth are they going to contribute? ‘I’m a scaffolder and I’d buy your newspaper if it carried pictures of Big Brother Sophie’s shirt potatoes …”)

So what kind of people are going to respond to this glittering opportunity? Well there’s a grumpy old man who was once a proof-reader at a local printers, a single-issue pressure group nutter, a man from the local pigeon racing association, a BNP campaigner, a former copper who is probably a BNP campaigner and a few normals.

Back in the day when we had a few bob, this exercise would have been carried out by professional market research experts in a specialist facility. You’d have sat behind a one-way glass window and listened to punters talking honestly and constructively about your newspaper. These days it’s just a bear pit. You’re out there, sat amongst them, and you’re not allowed to say that you’re the editor, even though you’re the only person in a suit and tie. With eyes that don’t swivel alarmingly.

It really is a nightmare. The BNP are first in to bat. How dare the suede loafer-wearing Leftie in charge of this rag write a leader just before the local elections accusing a perfectly legal political party of being a bunch of foam-flecked, fascist fuckwits? Surely there are laws against this kind of thing? Why hasn’t the editor been hauled before the courts for showing political bias?

Next up is the single-issue nutter, who would obviously prefer to express herself through the medium of modern dance. Unfortunately, mere words will have to do. It’s Burma, you see. Why aren’t we carrying more coverage about what’s happening in Burma? Do we even have a Burma correspondent? I’m afraid not, love. We don’t even have a correspondent covering the town eight miles down the road, never mind the ructions in Rangoon.

The pigeon-racing bloke just wants one thing – more pigeon racing in the paper. So he’s asked what sort of thing he wants. Results, he says, pigeon racing results. And where might we get these results? From the secretary of the local pigeon racing association. And who might that be? Well, it’s him actually. He draws up the results of every pigeon race, emails them to all the contestants within minutes of the finish of the race, and would be quite content for us to publish them.

I can contain myself no longer. If he’s already emailed all the members, what would be the point of printing, two or three days later, several inches of 6pt gibberish that has already been communicated to anyone remotely interested in it? He’s not happy at this outburst. His feathers are ruffled.

And then it gets really bad. One of the normals kicks off. She’s late fifties, what would formerly have been working class before we were all gentrified, and an typical regional evening newspaper reader – the kind of profit-generating person we should have been nurturing for the past decade, rather than constantly shitting on.

Why, she wants to know, have we closed our city centre office, where she used to drop in the occasional classified ad? Why have we moved all our reporters (!) out of town to an inaccessible industrial estate? Why have we stopped printing in the town and sacked all those local people who used to work for us? Why is there no live news in the Beast? Why was the stabbing in the High Street last Monday not reported until Wednesday’s paper? Is it true that we print overnight now? Why are there so many spelling mistakes? Why is there so little news? Why is there a three-quarter page advert on Page 3? What has happened to the court reports? And the council meetings? And why couldn’t we send a photographer to record her mum and dad’s diamond wedding anniversary? All the family were there – almost 50 of them.

It’s just horrible. She’s so right on every point. If only I could lock her in a room with some of our many consultants until they saw sense.

An hour after they’ve all gone, I’m still there, sitting in a soulless Travelodge function room weeping quietly into my warm white wine. This is what we have become.

 

 

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