Sunday, May 15, 2005

Getting started with the newspaper

Chapel Hill - We all comment, at least on some days, on whether we “saw” something in the newspaper or whether we’ve “read the paper”. If we do not raise it, inevitably someone else does.

Usually it’s either a very big news story or a very small one. As television has become our primary means for following the big news, it is becoming more likely, it seems to me, that we are going to mention, or hear from someone else, a smaller, more local, story.

People choose to “consume” a newspaper in many different ways. How they do this has a lot to do with how often they buy a newspaper, and how often they “read” it. Therefore, it has a lot to do with where that proverbial “hockey puck” is headed in the future.

One of the ways I enjoy consuming a newspaper is to receive a PDF (portable digital format, for those not following!) of the front page of Liberation in Paris each day as I do by e-mail.

From there, in the NewspaperDirect service (for which I have done work, in the interest of full disclosure) I can access all the other pagers just as though I were sitting at a Paris or Nice café doing so. Well, ok, so it is not quite the same. The wind does not blow these pages, and there is little chance of croissant crumbs falling on it. And, true, it is easier to recover from a coffee spilled on Libe, the paper paper, than it is to recover from coffee spilled on my laptop’s keypad.

Anyway, a few people do that.

Some do the older equivalent, at least in those places where the newspapers that might interest them are presented in vending machine windows. I often wonder how many people buy based on that window view. Some do, no doubt. But I seldom encounter a waiting line at vending machines (which are a very US phenomenon, although existing in some number of other countries, even beginning in France) of the curious reading enough to decide if they will put coins in that newspaper fountain.

Around the world, people peruse newspaper options at newsstands. There is something more inviting about a good collection of newspapers at a newsstand that puts them within easy reach. You can actually “feel” them before you buy. No one seems to mind if you read a front page of a paper, even “below the fold”, but vendors seem universally annoyed when you open the paper in the shop, or at the kiosque as part of the “deciding to buy” ritual. I cannot blame them.

Those who have their newspaper delivered to their homes have a new technology challenge. They must decide if they can read enough through the plastic bag that often the bag in order to get a sense of what’s “in” the paper today. Some papers make this easier than others; they use clear plastic. The New York Times, on the other hand, has a distinctive blue that makes it very hard to see what is inside. This has its advantages, however, when the plastic bag becomes the disposal receptacle for the dog’s walk.

Finally, there are those whose newspaper comes via the Postal Service. That puts the newspaper in tough competition with junk mail, some bills, and whatever else someone may have dropped in the mailbox. The choice is between being annoyed, often, by one of those letters and being unhappy with what is in the newspaper. I’d say that newspapers are winning, as I think we all get less good news mail than used to be the case. Then again, on balance, are you happier or sadder after reading the newspaper on most days?

There is one more – those people who allow, for many reasons, the newspapers to stack up. Maybe it was a trip. An emergency. Other work, etc. But there they sit in a pile, occasionally emitting a whiff of dust signaling their need to be tended. Old news is old news, but occasionally it’s worth more than the recycling box.

Lots of newspaper people time has been spent on discussing the front page and how to design it to get your attention. The belief in the business is that color is more attractive, and you are more likely to buy and consume a paper with some front page color, usually a photo. That may be true for those making that choice on the spot, but I question just how many of them there are and whether it is as important as it is often made out to be.

There really is a lot of positioning involved in getting a newspaper front page firmly in the hands, in electronic or print form, of a customer.

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