Hard news isn't enough

We’ve all had to do it… sit behind that one-way mirror and watch a minibus load of sandwich guzzling, sweet wine swigging members of the great British public talk (actually, one talks and the others agree) about your paper or magazine.

“I wouldn’t touch it with my Marigolds on” is the sort of response you dream of because actually you wouldn’t bloody want her to.

Then they are asked how the brand (brand!) could be more appealing to younger readers/women readers/ readers with red hair, two cars and 1.5 dishwashers. By this time the sweet white wine has really kicked in and the most ridiculous answers can come pouring out. Magazines should have real people on the cover, yes, ideally obese, spotty real people. Newspapers should have more puzzles and crosswords, with the answers on the next page and not upside down – great! The problem is these pearls have cost in excess of £2,500. The results from the room of these curly sandwich addicts are then passed round your board of directors who, because they rarely meet anyone who hasn’t got at least three cars and two dishwashers, can act in very peculiar ways and mutter things like “we must listen to what our readers are saying”.

Now, to save you all time, money and mutterings, I’ve observed two focus groups (minus the wine and sandwiches) this week.

Focus Group One This took place on Sunday morning in my local newsagent. Female customer (blondish/30ish/size 12-ish) picks up the Sunday Mirror, takes it to the counter, pays for it, leaves shop.

Minutes later she returns to the shop, goes to the counter and complains that her Sunday Mirror does not have a CD in it. The newsagent calmly tells her that the Sunday Mirror does not have a CD. Size 12-ish is not so calm: “All newspapers have CDs with them and I want mine.” There is now a queue of us waiting to pay for our CDs and DVDs – sorry, our newspapers – and size 12-ish is not going to calm down.

The newsagent is not going to be hurried.

He tells her that she could have “a 15-track rock CD with The Mail on Sunday, The Greatest Classics CD with the Sunday Express or a DVD with the News of the World”. Well that was it, she wanted the DVD. Someone in the queue pointed out that it was a football DVD, but she was not budging. “A DVD is a DVD, isn’t it.” So the newsagent, still calm, swapped her Sunday Mirror without a CD for a News of the World and gave her 5p. What no one told her was that she was going to have to make her way to her nearest Asda (some 11 miles away) to actually get her DVD.

Now everyone knows this is dangerous territory we are into. If size 12-ish is buying a Sunday paper to increase her CD collection (or indeed start her football DVD library), we are bouncing right back to the scratchcard wars and even the bingo/wingo/gringo era. But free CDs, now known as Circulation Decliners, seem to be everyone’s answer to grabbing those extra sales, despite the fact that each extra copy put on costs approximately £3 and if the newspaper does not have a CD the following week, every copy is lost.

Editorial excellence does not seem to have a lot to do with selling newspapers.

If the David Beckham revelations in the NoW cannot give a huge sales boost, what can? But CDs must not be relied on and other promotions must not be sniffed at. Promotions managers and editors must work together to find new, financially viable add-ons for their papers that will excite readers just as much as an old track from The Hollies. And yes, they need to find those added extras week after week to lock in those extra readers.

The time really has come for editors not to be so sniffy about promotions.

Great editorial and great promotions will result in great circulations again.

Neither News International nor Trinity Mirror have marketing directors and the editors must grab that role – they are, and should be, the marketeers of their newspapers. If the odd free fresh cream cake (family size), a free fashion watch (just think yourself lucky you’re not working with Charlie Wilson that week) or a free underwater camera helps sales, then go for it. Otherwise your only answer will be to cut your newspapers right back, fold them in quarters and tuck them inside a CD cover.

Focus Group Two I just happened to be talking with 10 other people who had no idea about my former life. With Alastair Campbell subtlety, I swung the conversation round to “and what papers do you buy?” Half of them didn’t buy or even read a newspaper, but got all the news they wanted from the television. One of them picked up a free newspaper each day on the way to work. Only four of them bought newspapers. One said she couldn’t do without her Daily Mail (well, we were in Sevenoaks), but wondered if it was always truthful.

Purchaser number two bought The Times because she said it had less (less!) bullshit in it.

The third bought The Daily Telegraph because he thought it was nearer (nearer!) the truth and the sports pages reported what actually happened rather than some “sports nutter” (his words, not mine) writing about what he thought should or shouldn’t have happened. The fourth bought The Sun – well, to be absolutely truthful, he had it delivered and hadn’t got round to cancelling it.

Actually, thinking about it, he probably wouldn’t cancel it because he did love Hagar – scary! Perhaps it’s time for newspaper chiefs to bury anything that needs burying and get together to come up with a joint “Get it right, get a newspaper” campaign.

Went to Terry Sanders’ leaving party last week; he had been with the Mirror for 50 years. Now that is an achievement.

Give him a subject and he could make a TV ad and get it on air within 24 hours. Of course, Piers and Sly were the talk of the night. Piers, I think quite rightly, wasn’t there. I can understand them trying to nick his car, but why his jacket? Sly wasn’t there either, but perhaps she should have been. Okay, so she’s about to make her second biggest decision since taking over Trinity Mirror.

Her first? To remove Piers. Her second? Who can she replace him with? Well, I’m sorry Phil, however much you tell everyone that you don’t want the job, I think you’re gagging for it. 

Bridget Rowe is a former editor of the Sunday Mirror and The People

Next week: Alison Hastings

by guest columnist Bridget Rowe

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