Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Customer Service

The Washington Post has this problem.

No, not that problem. (Whatever you want to think. Fiscal Times, selling access to newsmakers, rampant liberalism, too much in Bush's camp on Iraq...)

The Washington Post has this problem with its readers' expectations, as ombudsman Andrew Alexander put it:

"A common lament from longtime print readers is: 'What's happened to my Post?' They want the newspaper to remain as it was. And many are put off by The Post's emphasis on the Web."

Alas, all Alexander can offer them is, basically, "your time is passing":

"... The print audience is generally older, and there is no evidence that large numbers of younger readers will acquire the habit of reading a newspaper. So The Post must do everything it can to retain its loyal print readers while preparing for the day when its Web site is dominant."

In other words, the Post must not completely alienate the people who are paying the bills, while at the same time putting most of its effort into trying to find a way to get a new group to pay the bills, and thus sort of partially alienating the first group. It's not Alexander's fault that he is left having to write a sentence such as "It's essential to maintain newspaper circulation, which inevitably will dwindle." He just works there, and he has no more idea how to solve the problem than anyone else.

Some copy editors would have challenged that sentence, even in an opinion column, as needing to be rewritten as "While newspaper circulation inevitably will dwindle, it's essential to maintain as much of it for as long as we can." But copy editing is in sad straits these days. Part of "what's happened to my Post?" is the lack of copy editing:

"Many in the newsroom, and more than a few readers, believe the quality of The Post's journalism has suffered. In some ways, I agree. For instance, excessive typos and grammatical errors are hurting credibility."

Alas, Alexander has no answer for that one either, and neither did Deborah Howell, the previous ombudsman, who left us all too soon as the result of a car crash, but while she was in that job often pointed out that the buying-out of large numbers of Post copy editors had hurt the Post in readers' eyes. Still, I understand that if your newsroom has shrunk from a staff of 900 to 550 and your paper is still losing money, bringing back copy editors is probably not going to be your first answer, although maybe it should be.

Department stores really didn't have an answer to this problem either. As their business started to decline, they reacted in basically the same way newspapers did: Cut here, prune here, whoops that's not enough, let's figure out our core mission ... which inevitably turns out to be "what do we want to do" and not "how do we execute it." I can see department stores saying, "Our survival depends on being leaders in fashions for men, women, children and the home, etc." and then saying, "So let's lay off the returns desk and let's cut back on the training our clerks receive, and then let's cut the number of clerks in half, because we've got to compete with discounters who don't employ any of those people. Oh, and make the gift boxes really flimsy and hard to get. But we'll still be leaders in fashions for men, women, children and the home, so people will come here."

As noted here before, Kohl's has become a major national chain by offering many parts of the department store experience (good lighting, classic merchandise displays) with shopping carts and a checkout. Traditional department stores cut back on the number of people working, added to their duties (such as making them handle returns), and had people working the register who had no idea how to operate it, let alone help you actually select something. But they still had you wander the floor looking for an open register. I can see how the traditional L.S. Ayres or Famous-Barr shopper would have reacted with horror if greeted by carts and a checkout aisle. But how many people also simply said, after waiting in line 25 minutes at Wanamakers, the heck with this?

People react to how they're treated, and a newspaper that says, as the Post and most newspapers basically have, that "more typos are just going to happen while we try to figure out how to survive on the Internet" runs the risk of its readers saying, "Gosh, they think I'm a moron," and thus not maintaining that essential-for-now circulation. People may not know the intricacies and lengths and efforts you went through to get an investigative story or even an interview with the stars of "Glee." They may not even care if you didn't get it and ran a story about Jay Leno instead. That's what you care about. They do know if you say "The stars of 'Glee' is planning for next year."

Unrelated but interesting note: Alexander's column notes that "Only 19 percent of those who read the newspaper go to The Post's Web site. And 86 percent of The Post's online audience is from outside The Post's newspaper circulation area." He notes, "That helps explain why The Post last year launched a 'Local Home Page' for those online visitors who live in the area," assuming that this will drive more of its print readers online. But isn't that less-than-20-percent figure the case for most newspapers? And don't most newspapers have an online audience profile that contains a lot of one-hit wonders, people who used to live there, and national sports fans? As has been noted to death, newspapers' problem is not that their readers all hate print. Most of them would have enough print readers to run for years. The problem is that advertisers find print overpriced and unresponsive to their needs -- as many of them found it for 20 years before the Internet offered an easy alternative. But hey, it's all about us journalists, right?

1 comment:

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