The Future of Print Readership: The Role of Story Content/Presentation

Lorraine Lee
By Lorraine Lee
Published: August 20, 2008 at 4:26 PM (MST)
Part one: The Future of Print Readership: Following Cultural Trends


For my second research paper I focus on how story content and the way news is presented impact print and online newspaper readership. This topic naturally follows the subject of my first paper — culture change. My first paper analyzed the effect of the Internet on readership, how people's lives have changed their reading habits and the evolving perception of media. In this paper I discuss what turns readers on/off to newspapers based on the societal changes which I reported on in my first paper.

In a world where people's time seems more valuable than ever, story content has become that much more important — it is one of the main factors drawing readers into or turning them away from reading newspapers. Without appealing content written in a reader-friendly manner, readers won't want to read newspapers. Newspapers will serve no purpose if they don't have an audience to inform.

As the decline in print readership continues, industry officials have identified the improvement of story content as one of the main ways for newspapers to turn their readership around and gain a more loyal audience. In fact, gaining readers through more interesting content and promotion have become so important that new positions have been created specifically to do just that at newspapers like “The Bakersfield Californian' and “Atlanta Journal-Constitution.' The Readership Institute (2001) reported that even the slightest increase in overall content satisfaction increases readership. And an article in “The Canadian Press' (2001) went so far to say that improving content will reverse the readership decline.

The way a story is presented and marketed also has huge potential to reverse the readership decline. Presentation denotes how journalists tell a story, design stories on a page or screen, and use different devices to make it more appealing and easy to read. Marketing includes techniques like in-content promotion and better service, both of which are main factors to gaining readers.

Cheré Coen, who was Readership Editor at “The Bakersfield Californian' and whose job was to make the newspaper more reader-friendly, wrote in an email interview about the important effect of story content and presentation on readership.
“It's everything. Readers can sense from the way a story begins and how it is placed on a page that it will be too long or too in-depth for the time they have allocated to read the paper,' Coen said. “Some readers only want the breakout boxes so if they don't see any, will skip the story. It's unfortunate, but most readers today don't have the time or the inclination to read long stories or stories they know they should read but don't want to (government meetings are an example).'


Role of Story Content

Newspaper articles are supposed to inform the public of what's going on in the world — but is the dissemination of facts by itself enough to attract readers? The answer seems to be “no' amongst many industry experts.

According to the Readership Institute, the types of articles that interest readers of all ages include those that: 1) give the reader something to talk about; 2) make the reader smarter; or 3) look out for the reader's civic and personal interests. If journalists can write articles that offer readers one or more of these qualities or experiences, readership is likely to increase.

Reader Complaints

Newspapers can also increase readership by identifying and addressing reader complaints. A common complaint in a State of the News Media report (2007) is that stories have become “flat' and uninteresting. The Pew Research Center (2002, p. 3) reported that “many Americans only follow the news when something important occurs.' This means that when an event isn't deemed “important' in readers' eyes, they don't have a compelling reason to pick up the paper, thus contributing to the decline in news readership.
Another reason for the declining interest in news may be because stories have become too “dry' and journalists assume readers know more than they really do, according to an article in “The Canadian Press' (2001). This is a turn-off to readers not only because the stories are boring, but because the writers are making it difficult for the readers to understand what they're reading. People read to become informed about a topic of interest; if they struggle to understand a subject matter they find interesting in an article, they will not think it's worth their time to continue reading. The struggle overwhelms readers' interest.


Popular and Unpopular Stories

While there are no silver bullets or easy solutions to addressing the decline of print readership, there are quite a few changes that may stem this decline. Among these, the biggest change most readers want to see in their newspapers is a greater focus on community news. This desire for more community news can be attributed to several reasons. One is that news is becoming more impersonal, according to the Readership Institute and State of the News Media 2007. Another is that by having more community news, the paper feels more like the readers'; this is because the newspaper is incorporating readers' input instead of having its journalists insist they know what the readers want to read. The journalists are still in charge of what's being written, but now they are taking the input of the readers into account and adding more stories of interest.
Some industry officials may argue that by doing this, newspapers are compromising their integrity and ignoring news that should be covered. Editors at newspapers need to refrain from knee-jerk reactions of thinking “they know best,' and challenge themselves to ask objectively whether the stories being replaced were space-fillers and not significant or interesting to begin with for the readers. If so, newer stories that are more relevant to the readers' lives should replace them. Also, perhaps these so-called “necessary' stories are already being covered in national newspapers like “The New York Times.' If the newspaper wants to cover a global issue, it should localize the story to engage its target audience.

Another useful change concerns local, health and crime news, which are followed by readers across all audiences and prove to be widely read stories, reports The Pew Research Center (1998). However, there is evidence that readers still want to know more about the “goings-on' in the community, as well as understanding “how we are governed,' reported an article in the American Journalism Review (2003, p. 2). Again, people want to read about news that directly affects them.

Stories on health, home, food, fashion and travel have the second greatest potential for growing readership, reported the Readership Institute (2007). This is because these stories are easier to read, thus making the paper more personable and relatable to readers' lives. Readers are also very eclectic in their tastes, allowing these types of stories to span across a greater area of news.

Yet another area for effective change is the editorial section. Improving editorial (and advertising) content was one of the “four cornerstones of readership growth,' according to an article in the American Journalism Review (2003-2004, p. 2). The Readership Institute (2005) also found that editorials matter, especially to older, more loyal readers. Perhaps this is because editorials reveal the voice and passion of the journalists and editors behind the newspaper. If editorials are written in a logical, mature and interesting manner, chances are the writers understand how to convey messages and information. Also, editorials draw in readers based on the subject matter — if readers can see that the journalists understand what's interesting and important, that can lead to greater reader interest. Editorials are in a way another type of storytelling, making the content and the journalist “come alive.'

Stories that include “go and do' information have also become extremely popular. Readers do not want to sit idly after reading a story. Stories should provide phone numbers, addresses, online sites, etc. so that if readers wants to know more, it's easy for them to find out how to do so, according to an article in the American Journalism Review (2003-2004). “Go and do' stories also provide the reader with the opportunity or possibility of further action beyond just passively reading the newspaper. Stories with no further supplemental information are just that — a story. However, with more interactivity with “go and do' stories, a reader can take the new information and knowledge from the story and apply it to their lives — this added touch to a story relates back to the story tenets of what draws in readers.

Newspapers should also focus on which subjects offer the greatest appeal to readers and the relationship between the topic and length of articles. A NAA- and ASNE-backed Readership Institute (2004) research undertaking found that readers wanted fewer stories and photos about natural disasters and accidents; shorter stories about movies, TV and weather; more stories about business, economics and personal finance, especially ones offering commentary and advice; more and longer stories about science, technology and the environment; fewer but more locally focused stories about crime and justice; and more features and commentary about all levels and types of sports. All these findings are supported by previous research. Readers preferred those stories directly relating to people's lives that could also be considered “hard news,' like business and economics. Why? Because those are stories directly affecting them, and they can take in the information and then “go and do.'

The research findings above strongly suggest that newspapers need to be sensitive and receptive to reader preferences, when deciding what topics to cover and the length of different stories. For stories which may not directly relate to readers' lives but are still of interest, like those about science and technology, longer stories might be more appropriate as these topics are more difficult to understand and require more space to explain in a way for the average reader to understand.

Coen said she has seen a trend among what newspapers strive for in a story.

“Most newspapers today shun stories that are written more than 25 inches. The last place I worked they were demanded about 10! This is a huge difference from when I first started and we wrote long,' Coen wrote. “And most newspapers today want breakout boxes, a real person in the story, boxes that explain contact information, etc. As a reader, I like these things and have little time, so I can understand the significance very well.'

Feature-Style Writing

As a budding journalist, I have learned that the inverted pyramid writing style — in which the most important news is placed at the top of the story and the least important at the bottom — is the basic way to write a news story. This way, stories can be cut, if necessary, from the bottom up. However, this style is appealing to fewer readers, while articles written in a feature or narrative style are the preferred type of story according to numerous sources like the Readership Institute and an article in the American Journalism Review (2003-2004).

Feature-style stories often begin with a “microlede' focusing in on one person, and then relate that person to the bigger issue in the article. Newspapers which lean towards feature-style writing are viewed as more “honest, fun, neighborly, intelligent, ‘in the know' and more in touch with the values of readers,' according to the Readership Institute (2005, p. 3). By writing in a feature-style, hard news is not receiving the short end of the stick, as some readers might assume. Feature-style writing is just that — a style of writing. All the news will still be in the article; however, the journalists will be writing the article as if they're telling a story, enticing readers to read just beyond the first few paragraphs to take in the bland and basic “who, what, where, when, why and how.'

Based on the findings in my first research paper, this shift to feature-style writing seems to be the key to attracting younger readers to read the news.

“Younger adult readers are not stupid,' said Readership Institute Managing Director Mary Nesbitt in an article in the CQ Researcher Online (2006). “They react very badly to being talked down to. But they also don't want to be bored to tears by stories that are not well told, stories that are of no interest to them in the first place.'

The Readership Institute has listed numerous reasons for the value of feature-style writing, including attracting more readers through focusing on people like them, and attracting more women readers too. Currently only 18 percent of stories are written in a feature-style, while 69 percent of stories are written in an inverted pyramid style, according to the Readership Institute.


Presentation of content in newspapers ranges from the design of the print and online newspaper to when and how the newspaper is delivered at your doorstep every morning. Now with so many options to choose from to access news, newspapers can no longer expect people to want to read their papers based solely on the information they contain. Because the odds are that most, if not all, the content your newspaper is covering has already been covered by another competitor paper. Presentation becomes one of the key factors in differentiating your paper among the hundreds of print or online papers hoping to gain your loyalty through subscriptions or site visits.


People have many misconceptions about how to turn the newspaper industry around. Some solutions seem realistic, but others have been disproved by certain news research organizations. For example, contrary to common belief, jumps do not seem to affect how people judge a story's content, according to the Readership Institute (2001). One reason for this could be that if readers are interested in reading an article, the inconvenience of following jumps is not onerous enough to overcome readers' interest in finishing the story. Perhaps by custom or force of habit, readers have come to expect and accept jumps in a newspaper, but newspapers should still try to minimize their frequency. They do take up more of the readers' time, which could potentially affect readership.


Better service will help turn the industry around, but media organizations do not take this as seriously as they should. A newspaper that arrives every morning on time and in good condition has a huge effect on whether the reader will want to continue subscribing and reading that newspaper, according to an article in the American Journalism Review (2003-2004). If readers can trust not only what is reported in the newspapers but how the news gets to them, they will be more inclined to stay loyal customers.


Another common misconception is that more attractive design, like more color, draws in a larger crowd. While perhaps the more vivid color may initially catch a reader's eye, people do not pick up newspapers to look at only pictures. For a paper to maintain a healthy readership, its content must have substance.

Also, a common improvement many readers want is for their newspapers to be more easily navigable, according to numerous sources. If newspapers provided more cues to “go here for this story,' readers would know where to find the stories they want to read. And they would be able to find it more easily, increasing their satisfaction with that paper. Different audiences want to read different stories, and by laying out clearly the location of each story, the paper serves audiences with different interests better while still covering and informing about a wide range of issues.


Advertisements or ads are a newspaper's main source of revenue. However, ads are mostly ignored by readers. This is especially true on news sites, according to a Poynteronline study amongst 46 San Francisco people (2004). Yet there are still readers who buy Sunday newspapers for their inserts or readers who go to newspapers for the “marketplace' aspect, wrote Professor Mary Nesbitt of the Readership Institute. And because some ads do attract attention, their placement still matters. Currently when people glance at ads, it is only for 0.5 to 1.5 seconds; however, improved ad placement can increase that figure, according to the same article.

Nesbitt also highlighted the fact that print and online newspaper advertisements are received differently.

“Print is often described as a ‘lean back' medium — you're sitting in your own bubble of time, often relaxing, and paging through a limited and defined product that mixes news and advertising but in a way that allows you totally ignore one or the other,' she wrote. “Now consider online, a ‘lean forward' medium that is all about doing things — clicking, linking, scrolling. Along come ads that pop up on your screen or leap about or are garish — and can be intrusive. Ads haven't been integrated smoothly yet online the way they mostly have in print.'

Also, there is evidence that different racial and ethnic groups respond to ads in varying ways. A study by the NAA- and ASNE-backed Readership Institute (2004) reveals that African American and Hispanic readers “tend to be single-copy buyers at double the rate of white readers, so making the paper easily accessible is priority.' It added that both minority groups “spend significantly more time reading advertising' than Caucasian readers. If this is true, understanding the make-up of the paper's audience and seeking the placement of advertisements that appeal to its core constituency would be one way possibly to increase readership.

Promotion and Marketing

In-content promotion, which involves a newspaper promoting its own content, is another contributing factor to building readership. Yet many newspapers are not doing it. Common excuses include, “We don't have time' or “We aren't good at planning ahead,' according to the Readership Institute (2005). But these are just excuses, and newspapers need to start making time. How are readers expected to be drawn to a newspaper if it is not being actively promoted? Newspapers cannot just passively report the news — they must report it, and then market it. Because time is precious, promotion becomes that much more important — it'll catch the less-frequent reader according to the Readership Institute (2005), and help readers choose more quickly which stories will interest them, through the use of teasers and other promotional strategies. Combine in-content promotion with making it easier for readers to find articles of interest, and the newspaper will already have improved a great deal.

When Coen worked at “The Bakersfield Californian,' promotion of the newspaper was one of the most difficult tasks for her.

“The hardest part was getting information from all of the departments to create "Coming" boxes and other promotional editorial,' Coen said.

Online Homepages

Although people are increasingly turning towards the Internet for news, this does not mean that online news sites are perfect. The best way to present online news is still being debated, although a Poynteronline study (2004) conducted a test to see what worked best in attracting readers amongst 46 participants in San Francisco.

Participants first looked at the flag/logo and top headlines in the upper left portion of the page. Users were also found to read more of the articles or blurbs with smaller type, while bigger type led to more scanning. So the most logical thing would be to put the main articles at the top of the page, which most online newspapers do. Headline writing was also found to be extremely important, as many readers only read the first few words of a headline unless it catches their attention. To entice readers, copy editors should make new headlines for online stories, and cater to the way the audience sees the news on a computer screen.

Online stories that were shorter received more views as well, suggesting that when readers go online, they're not looking for in-depth stories, but rather the quick facts.


In my next paper, I will examine the changing relationship between reporter and citizen, and how new technology has fueled this evolving relationship. I will focus particularly on the role of multimedia in the news industry and the different mediums through which news can be received. I will also look at whether and how print and online counterparts of newspapers, like the “LA Times,' have begun to use technology to work together.

Works Cited

Jost, Kenneth. (2006). Future of newspapers. CQ Researcher Online. Retrieved October 19, 2007.

Outing, Steve. (2004). Eyetrack III: What News Websites Look Like Through Readers' Eyes. Poynter Online. Retrieved December 2, 2007.

Small, Jay. (2004). When It Comes to Homepages, It is Polite to Stare. Poynter Online. Retrieved December 2, 2007.

Stepp, Carl Sessions. (2003-2004). Why Do People Read Newspapers? American Journalism Review. Retrieved October 26, 2007.

2007. Digital. The State of the News Media 2007: An Annual Report on American Journalism. Retrieved September 8, 2007.

2005. The Value of Feature-style Writing. The Readership Institute. Retrieved September 10, 2007.

2005. Understanding and Improving “Easy to Read' Content. The Readership Institute. Retrieved September 10, 2007.

2005. Why Don't Newspapers Promote More? The Readership Institute. Retrieved December 2, 2007.

2001. Newspaper Content: What Makes Readers More Satisfied. The Readership Institute. Retrieved September 9, 2007.

1998. Internet News Takes Off. The Pew Research Center. Retrieved September 18, 2007.

© Robert Niles

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