BETWEEN THE LINES - Of news and readers

Tuesday, November 6, 2001

The Pilot-Tribune is taking part in the "Readership Commitment" project, based on the largest study of newspaper readers in the history of the United States.

In national conferences, learned speakers and Godzilla-sized stacks of materials, I've boiled down the gist of it to be something like this:

"Give your readers what they want and need, and have some fun doing it."

Here's a little quiz:

1. How many minutes a day does the average person spend reading a newspaper?

Answer: 26. With schedules being crazy as they are today, that's a big hunk of your lives you are sharing with us. Have we remembered to say thanks lately? Our goal had better be to pack those 26 minutes with all the news, enjoyment and information you can use.

2. What proportion of people read the morning newspaper long after noon?

Answer: 50 percent. That's me, too. Skim and run. Come back to the good stuff just before losing consciousness at night. We're going to use that time to find interesting people to introduce to you, intelligent reading, answer the need for lifestyles news that you have been asking for, give you more sports, go-and-do ideas.

3. Which age group reads the paper the most?

Answer: The 54-60 years olds. The people with a personal stake in their community. The people who know the real news when they see it. So how do we get younger groups to be so interested in the community around them and what makes it tick? Engaging writing, we think. While we inform you, I'd like to make you smile. Maybe cry. Maybe make you mad when there is reason for it. I'd like to touch you with the stories of the ordinary people all around us who do extraordinary things.

4. What percentage of people subscribe to a newspaper?

Answer: 45 percent. Another 7 percent get a copy to read from someone else. No radio or TV station can match those ratings, no internet site could dream of that kind of "hits." Those numbers put a newspaper into about every house in Storm Lake, and that kind of trust is a big responsibility.

The Pilot-Tribune has won hundreds of awards for writing, reporting, photography and design. None of them mean a thing next to the trust of our readers.

After all the years I've been doing this, you know what still gives me the biggest thrill? Walking into somebody's house and seeing something from our paper torn out and stuck to the refrigerator with a magnet shaped like a banana.

If an artist's ultimate rush is to see his work in a gilded frame in the Louvre, a newspaper writer has "made it" when he touches the reader enough to get on the fridge.

When I see our paper getting passed around at the Pantry, when I see it dog-eared on a teacher's desk in the classroom or wrinkled on the dashboard of a Chevy pickup, I get a little charge.

Our mission now is to make things even better. We're going to need you.

You needn't wait for a survey. Drop me a note, give me a call, shoot me an e-mail. Tap out some Morse code on a buffalo skin drum if that trips your trigger. Write that letter to the editor you've been thinking about.

Ideas are the fuel. We need yours.

You've always steered us right. The research says that

1 percent of all newspapers in the nation do a regular section of health news. You wanted it, and you put us in the 1 percent that has it. Only 7 percent have a regular education page. You needed it. Only one paper in the country puts out a diversity section like ours, you inspired it.

So I'm going to end this little quiz with one last question, friends.

Where do we go from here?