The Niche-Reader Fallacy

A reader (uh, my brother) has a response to my post about newspapers’ bad decision-making that helps clarify why papers are often paralyzed by small decisions. As a newspaper reader, he’s unsure of the wisdom of cutting some elements like box scores and TV listings. He writes:

As my students remind me, an awful lot of people (in raw numbers) don’t have fast Internet access or even home access at all. Those box scores and op-ed pages take a long time to load via dial-up. And one of the reasons I subscribe to print newspapers is to have the TV listings as a ready reference without having to go online yet again. The L.A. Times recently dropped its weekly TV guide section, and I’m seriously considering dropping my subscription because that was one of the most important resources it gave me that I couldn’t get online – a week’s worth of planning in one shot, whenever I wanted.

This is a perfect illustration of one reason newspapers are so sclerotic. Call it the Niche-Reader Fallacy: Newspapers live in such fear of readers canceling subscriptions if there’s any change to the horoscopes, comics, TV listings, box scores, stock tables, Miss Manners, etc., that they end up hanging on to everything for way too long.

Every paper has its own audience, so there’s no single right answer about what to cut and what to save/rethink (though stock tables come pretty darn close to being an across-the-board no-brainer). But part of this isn’t just “what’s more effective on the Web” — it’s “what’s the best use of increasingly limited print space to give readers news that they can’t get anywhere else?”

So yes, box scores may take time to load — but the average person wouldn’t be going online for results from the Arena Football League, horse racing, dog racing, WNBA, MLS, non-major tennis or golf tournaments, boxing, college baseball, and all the other obscure miscellany that takes up sports sections. The people who care about those things will watch SportsCenter or go online, and the average reader won’t care. Those readers would be better served if that space were used for more local investigations or what have you.

As noted in the post, the typical newspaper response to this is fear of making any changes or deletions because those few people who do care about all the box scores (or stock tables, or comics, etc.) will cancel their subscriptions — just as my brother is thinking about canceling his because of the TV listings. The solution isn’t then to cater to every reader’s niche interests — it’s to convince readers that the paper is worth reading for more than just that niche element. (In other words, leave the long tail to the Web.) If the L.A. Times can’t put out a paper that’s interesting enough to keep my brother’s interest once they drop the TV guide, then they don’t deserve his subscription.

Advertisements

One response to “The Niche-Reader Fallacy

  1. “If the L.A. Times can’t put out a paper that’s interesting enough to keep my brother’s interest once they drop the TV guide, then they don’t deserve his subscription.” Exactly. The TV guide is the straw that’s breaking the camel’s back. If the LA Times provided a consistently stimulating read, the TV feature wouldn’t make much difference. But whereas, for example, the NYT has consistent deep analysis and thorough reporting, and the Washington Post has a fun/urgent/engaging tone in most sections, I’ve found the LA Times mostly bland and lacking in consistency in many aspects. No doubt some of that is due to the nonstop carousel of publishers, editors, and owners in the last decade.

    For a bland paper that keeps dropping or condensing sections, I’m having trouble justifying a subscription for its national & international coverage (NY Times and W Post do it better) or its local coverage (my county daily does that better); its regional coverage is about all that’s worth it.