I bumped into the editor of an evening newspaper in the doctor’s surgery one night. “Hello,” I said. “Are you here about your circulation?”
His reply was not printable in a respectable publication like Press Gazette, although I’m not sure which was causing him most problems – his paper’s circulation or his own.
Certainly his blood pressure didn’t look too good. For maintaining and increasing circulation is a constant challenge to the regional press, especially when there are more competitors in the market place these days, eager to take readers away from us.
The local paper is unique. In some ways it is like the local church: its mission is to include everyone in the area. Unlike other products that are aimed at a particular market niche, however, the paper tries to target everybody in the locality. In theory, no-one is left out.
This immediately creates a problem. Most circulation areas contain a wide variety of segments – wealthy suburbs, satellite commuter villages, lower-middle class suburbs and deprived working class districts.
And the people who live there are an eclectic mixture of young, transient student groups, established working classes, pensioners, business people and ethnic groups, lone parents and young families with children. How can one publication be attractive to all of them?
Most local papers either focus on some groups and ignore the others, or use the “blunderbuss” approach – they fire so many different things at their readers that the chances are they will occasionally hit some of their targets.
But maybe the blunderbuss needs to be replaced with the sniper’s rifle? Perhaps editors need to think of specifically targeting certain groups in different parts of the paper. For instance: lA broader range of specialist columns – coarse fishing, opera, age-related columns (for teenagers, thirty-somethings and old codgers), two crosswords of varying difficulty; race-related columns; columns for the deaf, gays and other minority groups; dog lovers/haters; DIY, gardens, snooker, wine making, wrestling – the list is endless.
lIntellectual editionising – the concept of “special interest editions” is not new – the wrap-around has been with us for some time and can be quite effective. But maybe there is scope for increasing the number of small-scale wrap-rounds on specific subjects as a way of picking up extra readers (and advertisers).
lA fresh approach to presenting news. The local paper’s prime function is to report news, but maybe it can be cut up and aimed at different types of readers, instead of being pitched at different geographical areas in the traditional way. Pages with easy, bite-size bits of hard news will appeal to some readers, while heavier features can be published for those keen to concentrate on deeper issues.
lClear signalling – the success of targeting different social groups of readers relies heavily on clear signalling. The different features/subjects/pages/columns need to be clearly signposted throughout the paper, with some items operating on a fortnightly or monthly cycle, depending on available space.
Cleland Thom runs Journalism Training Services