Hull discovers how to put sex appeal into jaded readers

John Meehan, editor of the Hull Daily Mail, explains how a new look and approach to news has helped sell papers like hot cakes

Last July I sat in the corner of a hotel room in Hull listening to
readers talking about my paper. It certainly wasn’t the first time I’d
been to a focus group but this time it was different. It was clear the
habits of readers had changed substantially.

True, they were in their 20s and 30s, but these were mature, settled
individuals with commitments and, mostly, very strong local
connections. They were the sort of people I would have expected to be
regular readers of the Hull Daily Mail or East Riding Mail.

But
none of them read the paper more than three times a week. And perhaps
most worrying was the image that they had of local papers generally.

We were a turn-off. The “sexy” new media on the internet and multi-channel television appeared more alluring.

Their awareness of what was in the Mail was low and they found it hard to find their way around our pages.

It
was also clear that the traditional maxim of “value for money” had been
replaced by a new one – “value for time”. People are busier than ever
and the local newspaper is being squeezed out of their lives. Doing
nothing was not an option.

This fascinating insight into people’s
reading habits demanded an innovative approach. And we were not alone.
The same research was being carried out in other Northcliffe daily
titles and consistent messages were coming through.

Busy readers wanted us to help them gain even more value from their time spent reading the paper.

The
research also emphasised the need for regional dailies to keep up to
date in an ever-changing world in which news and information is
available from more sources and in many more ways than ever before.

The
morning after the focus group, my senior colleagues and I worked out
what we had to do to produce a paper which would appeal to
time-pressed, selective, media-swamped readers.

Consequently, our new-look paper has many more entry points (and therefore reasons to read) on each page.

The innovations include “in short” panels
on all page leads, giving the key points of the story in a
matter-of-fact style. This means it is possible for readers to gain
maximum value for time by picking up, in a few seconds, the crux of the
main story on each page. The panels also help hook people into stories
they might otherwise skip over and encourage them to read the full
version.

We’ve also introduced “The Paper in a Page” on page two–an “at-a-glance”

digest of the whole paper, which readers can use to find the stories and features most relevant to their life and interests.

Before
the launch we tested the changes on groups of readers, both regular and
irregular. Almost all said they found the layout more appealing, made
it less likely they would miss things, and helped them to be better
informed.

Our new approach means nontime- sensitive stories are developed and displayed to their full potential.

Every page must be a picture package and photographers must provide at least four distinctive images from every job.

It is clear that there are fewer news stories overall, but those that are carried are of far higher quality and developed fully.

However, we know it is absolutely vital we don’t end up failing to cover significant local stories and issues.

Many
of the stories that used to make nibs now appear on more suitable
platforms such as the daily community news pages or in the listings.

It’s been a culture change for all of us and staff have adapted magnificently.

The
changes were enthusiastically received in presentations held before the
launch, which made for a smooth, successful implementation.

Our approach is different from that of other regionals that have downgraded the importance of breaking news.

We
believe passionately that, despite all the instant media around us,
local, hard, live news remains a major reason to buy and read regional
newspapers.

We have four editions a day, with the latest printing
at 1.15pm, and we are constantly updating them to ensure they contain
the latest, and most relevant, news.

We also frequently publish breaking news editions to capitalise on major newsbreaks outside our normal publishing times.

Over
the past few weeks, for instance, we’ve been selling papers like hot
cakes because of our coverage of the disappearance of Joanne Nelson.
She vanished on Valentine’s Day and her fiance has been charged with
murder, although at the time of writing, Joanne’s body had still not
been found.

We have devoted up to seven pages a day to the story,
updating regularly through the editions to bring readers the latest and
often exclusive developments.

The result has been a massive surge in sales – up to 7,000 extra copies on some days.

The
story has been covered by all the instant media – Sky News, BBC News
24, Radio 5 Live etc, as well as extensively on internet news sites –
but has still proved to be our biggest sales driver for at least two
years.

Why? Because we cover every “spit and cough” of the story,
and package the news in compelling and imaginative pages with dramatic
pictures, gripping narrative and attention-grabbing headlines.

Even better it means the “new” paper is being extensively sampled to thousands of irregular readers.

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