So I read with interest the latest Dyson at Large column on Hold the Front Page: http://www.holdthefrontpage.co.uk/blog/100407dysonblog14.shtml

The blog itself was, as always, interesting  – even if some say it is easier to critique from the outside than run the ship (to which I agree). But of much more interest to me were the comments. Dyson presents the Bradford Telegraph and Argus as a good paper with strong stories, a high story count and several other features of note, but then adds their ABC figures were poor.

He puts this down to poor marketing as costs are cut. Speaking from personal experience, the marketing departments of most newspapers are truly terrible and have no concept of brand message or brand awareness or even basic marketing techniques (the exception being my current paper where a huge ad campaign has reaped rewards of a circulation increase and much excitement , but that is for a later date).

Undoubtedly some of the blame lies here, but as other commenters are quick to point out, there is no shortage of local papers where staff have been cut and budgets slashed, yet their ABCs have not suffered as much. So maybe it is not just the marketing to blame, but the content of the paper, or another arbitrary factor not considered (one comment mentioned mucking around with editions which is bound to alienate some).

Which all begs the question I pointed to in my first blog. Do we, as journalists, decide what the reader wants based on what we think sells, is readable, interesting etc? Or do we follow the reader to the end, even if it means no council stories and more about celebs on patch?

Certainly, the Argus example suggests what we journalists think as a cracking read and a top paper (and the blog seems to indicate this) does not appear to be what the reader wants if we accept their ABC figures are at least in part down to content. What then do they want? Are they fed up of crime yarns? Do they tire of council debates, community news and boring business? And how do you tell without conducting a very expensive survey which might not provide the answers anyway?

At this point the web journos come in and say look at the web stats – an instant way of seeing what stories prove popular and what do not. But of course the web readership is not the same as the paper, no matter how much of one overlaps with the other. In the old days, one might have used the letter contributions as an indicator. But this can be skewed, with the most controversial, not the most read or interesting, being pushed up the bill. And letter writing is a dying art

Ultimately, there are some tough decisions that need to be made in newsrooms. Readership is declining. But we still sit here and think we’ve put out a cracking paper, if not every edition then as many as we possibly can. I often pick up a tale and get super excited about it and think it’s going to get the world talking. But has being in the industry warped my perspective? And is it the same for editors, long in the tooth and accustomed to the usual journalism fare? Maybe those great exclusives we fight for are not worth all that much to the readers, who want a page of nibs for easy digest and big pictures to look at on the train.

I thought I’d start this blog with a nice simple issue. Is the reader always right?

It’s the message we have been receiving from the powers that be. They have spent good money on in-depth research (that in itself is highly impressive given the tight purse strings of most newspaper bosses). Now they have all the results it is understandable they are using them for all their worth. We have detailed breakdowns of our readership – who has gone, who has come, who remain, who we should be going after etc.

It makes for fascinating stuff and as a reporter it might just be the first time in a newsroom I have actually been told in no uncertain terms who we are writing for and who exactly our audience is. In the past it has more been an editor saying these are good stories and these are not, and learning through that.

All very well and good but to what extent should we trust the input from our beloved readers? From experience the reader is definitely not always right. From the readers who claim you’ve made an error when you know you haven’t, to the interviewees who claim you misquoted them even though it is all on tape and in shorthand. Then there are the regular green ink brigade spouting about God, or conspiracies or both in the letter pages. These people also took part in the survey no doubt. How can you discount their input? Should you?

While I have no doubt reader feedback is useful, I wonder if too much is being read into their answers. When editorial content is being specifically targeted to individuals based on polls and survey results, you run the risk of pandering to a readership who more often than not do not know what the hell they want (for example I never hear the end of people saying there are not enough “good news stories” in the paper, despite none ever saying what a good news story is and all still fascinated by those stories you imagine they would term “bad news”).

What is to say in six months time they change their mind and tell us actually they don’t like lots of small stories anymore and instead would like in-depth features. No we don’t want celeb stories and actually all the boring council stuff we used to ignore is interesting as they’ve shoved a giant phone mast next to my house and I had no idea as I was reading about Lindsay Lohan coming to town.

So do we trust the reader implicitly and follow their desires, or do we give them what we think is good and interesting and right and hope they agree?