Applying a popular remedy to the audience cauldron of big regional dailies


TTo broad demographic trends are bearing down on newsmedia companies:

  • Working-class consumers and general-interest regional newspapers are separated and nearing divorce. News – on paper or digitally – is less relevant for this stagnant part of society, publishers are no longer focused on their needs, and fewer advertisers want to reach this demographic.

  • Upper-class consumers are consuming more news than ever before, yet are multiplying their platforms beyond print to smarter and faster versions of the World Wide Web via computer internet and mobile.

As the veil lifts higher on newspaper demographics, long-time fissures are being exposed through segmentation.

The newspaper industry is often portrayed as a one-size-fits-all industry. It's not. There are several kinds of daily newspapers in the world, notably:

  • “Quality” national dailies.
  • “Popular” national dailies.
  • Regional dailies.
  • Financial dailies.
  • Sports dailies.

The regional dailies make up the majority of the 10,000+ dailies worldwide and a majority of the newspaper circulation worldwide. Of the five genres of dailies listed above, the regional dailies are the most endangered – especially in the United States.

Why? Because their audience is a hodgepodge.

Through the decades, regional dailies evolved into hybrid products to appeal to demographics across a broad spectrum, united by sprawling geography and class aspiration. Regional dailies serving large cities in geographically dispersed countries with weak national newspapers and economically mature consumer markets fueled the growth in the printed press. These metropolitan dailies set themselves up as mini-national dailies, with a mix of national and international news along with the collection of local news, puzzles, comics, horoscopes, and classifieds.

Spread thinly in content and audience, the regional dailies have been devastated by the disaggregating effects of the internet:

  • Fringe audiences of under-educated working-class people more comfortable than ever with their lot in life no longer are forced into seven-day subscriptions as they have online alternatives that meet their infrequent-consuming lifestyles.

  • Historic print content – such as puzzles, comics, horoscopes, and classifieds – has migrated to more efficient online and mobile platforms as part of the re-write of the information landscape.

  • Non-local news has become a commodity because of the over-supply by wire services and the endless supply opened up via the internet and web surfing.

This leaves the regional daily with local news and a lot of fringe content.

By contrast:

  • “Quality” national dailies have tight upper-class audiences paying premiums and advertisers willing to pursue them.

  • “Popular” national dailies have tight working-class audiences willing to pay a surprisingly high cover price to see content that fits their lifestyles.

  • Financial dailies target business executives with money.

  • Sports dailies target sports enthusiasts that cut across demographics, though skew toward the “popular” end of the market.

The “quality” and “popular” dailies often drift into mini-battles over upper middle-class readers, while the financial dailies are creeping more and more into high-end “lifestyle” audiences served by quality national dailies.

The regional dailies can't determine where they want to be. That's because they're locked into geography as their defining audience characteristic. They're not willing or able to apply a “quality” or “popular” filter because they remain in a circulation numbers game for their one-size-fits-all product – at any cost. The overwhelming majority of regional dailies are owned or managed by people who aspire to be “quality” yet flirt with “popular” because they know that's where the numbers are. This gets spun as “dumbing down news.”

Across this broad continuum of publishing genres, the trend is clear: newspaper companies are losing working-class readers. The biggest circulation losses in mature markets are coming with popular dailies. The biggest losses among regional dailies are their working-class readers.

That doesn't mean upper-class readers aren't in play for newspapers. They simply are more likely to stick with print newspapers, they are willing to pay more for content, and they are willing to engage with your brand across platforms.

The strategic question becomes whether publishers should invest more time in deepening connections to its most loyal readership segment or try to make up for lost ground with working-class readers.

I argue that pursuing working-class readers with upper-class content is a disconnect. Instead, metropolitan publishers should consider launching second or third newspapers at working-class audiences or alternatives via the internet. Isn't that what the advertising community is asking in the broadest sense: quit giving us ill-fitting pieces!

Wouldn't it be liberating to aim a quality product at a quality audience using a quality medium? Wouldn't it be liberating to let loose with a popular product aimed at a popular audience using a popular medium?

Publishers of regional newspapers – notably, metropolitan dailies serving large urban markets – need to clean up their audience cauldron if they are to make sound business decisions about content and platforms.

One size does not fit all.

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