Think you know your core print audience? Think again.

I’ve been visiting my father this week. Dad is 87 years old, a member of the “greatest generation,” and a retired newspaper reporter.

While I’ve been staying at his house, I’ve been able to observe how Dad consumes media.

My father, like many in his generation, still has a printed newspaper delivered to his door every day. He also watches TV news, both local and national. But Dad also has a desktop computer and uses it to read news stories from sources. (He generally does not view the Web site of his local newspaper, except to share stories he has read with other people via e-mail.)

When he goes online to read news, it is generally because he wants to get more information about a specific topic he has heard or read about elsewhere. He generally gets to this topic through a search engine, primarily Google. In other words, Dad doesn’t just rely on the printed newspaper or other “traditional” media for news.

This made me think more generally about readership habits among Dad’s age group.

A couple of years ago, The Spokesman-Review conducted a focus group in advance of going to market with “connected” packages — a new, multi-media subscription strategy that included Web, digital replica, e-newsletters, etc.

There were roughly 14 participants in the focus group. All but one was over 60, and several were over 70 years old. The participant under 60 was a Generation Xer in his late 30s. (More on this generation in my next blog post.)

When I first saw the age makeup of the group, I was unsure of what to expect and was afraid the participants really wouldn’t get what we were trying to do. I assumed these were all print subscribers (most were) who might not embrace the new multi-media packages we planned to offer or find any value at all in the digital components. 

As we worked our way through the session, we were surprised at what we learned about our older customers. We began by asking questions about their readership habits and, specifically, where they go to get their news.

As mentioned above, most (but not all) were print newspaper readers, although not all subscribed to the print newspaper seven days a week. Most owned a tablet or other mobile device. (Ironically, the guy in his late 30s did not.) All were familiar with and regularly visited “news aggregation” sites such as The Huffington Post and Google News.

Some of them had smartphones but didn’t find this a viable option for reading news, due to the size of the screen. Television also was popular. In general, they used each medium at different times of the day and for different reasons. This group was well-versed and diverse in multi-media news consumption.

For the most part, the participants all agreed (except for the Gen Xer) they did not want to see the print product go away, although all said that they would all likely accept a lesser frequency than seven-day delivery. There were one or two, however, who said they felt they could adapt to an all-digital newspaper because of the convenience and mobility it offered.

While they cautioned us not to give the impression through our marketing efforts that we were eliminating print, it was clear they were all very comfortable with regularly getting their news and information elsewhere.

We had planned to target slightly younger readers (baby boomers/Gen Xers) who had left the printed newspaper in recent years. But we quickly realised our digital offerings also would be embraced by our older readers. In fact, given the pricing of the different packages, a couple stated they might be compelled to consider an all-digital package.

One woman indicated she took seven-day service primarily because it was the only way she could get the Wednesday food section. She said if we offered a Wednesday/Sunday or Wednesday-only option, she would gladly get the rest of her news on other devices or from other sources.

While older consumers still tend to be print newspaper readers, there might be signs this is changing. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, as of April 2012:

  • More than 50% of U.S residents over the age of 65 were online.

  • 34% are on Facebook and almost 20% use it daily.

  • More than 86% use e-mail on a regular basis.

Other Pew research studies indicate 59% of seniors use the Internet to search for and read news. While seniors generally lag the overall population when it comes to using the Internet, this gap is closing. The number of seniors who are seeing the value and convenience of online content is growing.

The focus group taught me a couple of valuable lessons.

  • First, it taught me the importance of truly learning about and knowing your various audiences. I was surprised at how technically savvy this older group was and how open they were to getting news from different media and on different devices.

  • Second, newspapers need to be especially careful not to make incorrect assumptions about the group they had always considered to be a solid print audience. Newspaper companies shouldn’t assume older readers won’t abandon print in favour of digital content, nor should they assume that seniors will automatically be loyal to the newspaper’s online offerings.

For newspaper companies to keep this and other audiences reading the print product, they will need to continue to invest in content in the printed newspaper and keep the price of print reasonable.

In the face of potentially cheaper, more immediate options, time spent reading printed news is in jeopardy even with oldest customers. The focus group we conducted contributed to several of The Spokesman-Review print content discussions in the weeks and months that followed.

At the same time, newspapers also need to keep the 65-and-older audience in mind when developing digital content.

Older consumers already realise they have many choices, and they will get their digital news from the site that most interests them. With that in mind, newspapers need to make sure their digital content is prominent on search engines and news aggregation sites.

Dad still very much enjoys the tradition of waking up and flipping the pages of his local newspaper while he drinks his coffee in the morning. More and more, however, he is becoming comfortable in the digital world and likes the fact he has access to a plethora of information with just the push of a few buttons.

My Dad regularly says he hopes the printed newspaper never goes away. He also says that if that day ever comes, however, he will adapt because he wants to get news. And, even at 87 years old, he’s proficient at finding that news from sources other than print.