LAST WEEK, I HELD MY HANDS UP OVER THE LIES I’VE TOLD IN MY TIME IN MAGAZINE JOURNALISM HERE.
But then it occurred to me that perhaps I’d been a little too hasty to fall upon my sword. After all, if there’s one group of people who lie almost as much as journalists, it’s readers.
Here’s an example. From time to time, publishers and editors reach out to readers to ask what they really want. Here’s a little taste of how that might work out for you (*spoiler alert: in gut wrenching, cash-flow haemorrhaging heartbreak and horror. That’s how!)
Exhibit A: The New Day
A major UK publisher asks readers what they want. Readers reply that they want an optimistic and politically neutral newspaper. Said publisher promptly spends £5 million on a TV ad campaign to give readers what they’ve asked for in the form of The New Day. This, the UK’s first standalone national newspaper for 30 years, will be “optimistic” and “politically neutral”, the publishers announce. Then, just over two months later, they close the paper due to poor sales, saying: “New Day failed because consumers didn’t want what they said they wanted.” Thanks, readers. Thanks for nothing!
So why would readers lie about this kind of thing? One answer might be that we’re just not very good at knowing what we’ll want in the future. Right now, for example, I might be enjoying the below short video about baby pandas. However, if a well meaning publisher interrupted my viewing to ask what I’d like to be consuming in print and online in the future, there’s a good chance that I’d be asking for something a little more sophisticated, like optimistic and politically neutral journalism, for example. In fact, even as I’m typing it, it genuinely does sound like the kind of thing future me would enjoy. But enough to go out and buy a new newspaper every day? Well maybe after I’ve finished watching these pandas fight it out!
What you choose today versus what you’d choose for tomorrow:
I liked David McRaney’s explanation of how we use Netflix on his You Are Not Smart blog. Here’s an excerpt: “If you have Netflix, especially if you stream it to your TV, you tend to gradually accumulate a cache of hundreds of films you think you’ll watch one day. This is a bigger deal than you think.
“Take a look at your queue. Why are there so damn many documentaries and dramatic epics collecting virtual dust in there? By now you could draw the cover art to “Dead Man Walking” from memory. Why do you keep passing over it?
“Psychologists actually know the answer to this question, to why you keep adding movies you will never watch to your growing collection of future rentals, and it is the same reason you believe you will eventually do what’s best for yourself in all the other parts of your life, but rarely do.
“A study conducted in 1999 by Read, Loewenstein and Kalyanaraman had people pick three movies out of a selection of 24. Some were lowbrow like “Sleepless in Seattle” or “Mrs. Doubtfire.” Some were highbrow like “Schindler’s List” or “The Piano.” In other words, it was a choice between movies which promised to be fun and forgettable or would be memorable but require more effort to absorb.
“After picking, the subjects had to watch one movie right away. They then had to watch another in two days and a third two days after that. Most people picked Schindler’s List as one of their three. They knew it was a great movie because all their friends said it was. All the reviews were glowing, and it earned dozens of the highest awards.
“Most didn’t, however, choose to watch it on the first day. Instead, people tended to pick lowbrow movies on the first day. Only 44 percent went for the heavier stuff first. The majority tended to pick comedies like “The Mask” or action flicks like “Speed” when they knew they had to watch it forthwith.
“Planning ahead, people picked highbrow movies 63 percent of the time for their second movie and 71 percent of the time for their third. When they ran the experiment again but told subjects they had to watch all three selections back-to-back, “Schindler’s List” was 13 times less likely to be chosen at all.”
So there you have it. When you ask readers what they’d like to buy in the future, they’ll tell you they want the print equivalent of Schindler’s list – something weighty (and heart-breakingly expensive to make) that’ll make them feel good about themselves. But once you’ve launched your product into the marketplace, you’re no longer dealing with what readers imagine their future selves would want. Oh no. You’re dealing with what your readers really do want in the present moment. And just you try wrestling them from those panda clips and gifs. It will not be pretty!
Exhibit B: The Lord of the Rings
According to the BBC, one quarter of 18-24-year-olds admit to having lied about reading JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, when they have in fact just watched the Peter Jackson films.
Exhibit C: Reader feedback sought by the Liverpool Echo in 2015
When the editor of the Echo asked readers for their feedback on the newspaper, they said they wanted “less news about crime, more reporting on things to do in the city” and reporting that created a more positive image of the city.
I’m sure that the newspaper’s readers really did mean all of this at the time. But I also suspect that when the paper gets there first with a really big crime story, we’ll still give it more than a casual glance. Here’s a quote from the Guardian on The Pew research centre survey, Two decades of American news preferences: One of its central findings is that, over the course of 20 years, peoples’ interests have remained remarkably similar. In short, they are war, weather, disaster, money and crime.
I don’t think we’re lying about our desire to read more positive news, I just think that in the world of publishing at least, crime does still pay!
When readers tell the truth:
To be fair, when you’re able to offer content for free, readers genuinely do seek out positive stories. A few years ago, Arianna Huffington noted that content about good news on the Huffington Post was more likely to be shared than other stories.
A study from Pennsylvania University titled ‘What Makes Online Content Viral?’ had similar findings. The study tracked the circulation of almost 7,000 articles from the New York Times over a three-month period and found that positive articles were shared more often than negative ones.
And closer to home, I’ve been happily watching my close friend’s paper, Good News Liverpool, scoop up more readers and advertisers every month, and have thoroughly enjoyed seeing North West titles including ParentFolk and LBN Daily gain ever more traction with quality writing about regional businesses.
So it’s really not all doom, gloom, war, weather, disaster, money and crime. In essence, all I’m saying is, if you’re a publisher, you may want to think twice before launching a fiendishly expensive new title into the market off the back of a reader survey. Erm, and thank you for reading. I really do appreciate it and I hope we can still be friends!
* Main image of The New Day courtesy of the BBC.
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