Sunday, March 04, 2007

Lessons from Scoopy Bee

Today's column by Sacramento Bee Public Editor Armando Acuna makes a point worth remembering: being responsive to readers, whenever possible, is never a bad idea.

Praising what he called "a nimbleness and flexibility" he had found missing on some other recent issues, Acuna was appropriately proud of the way the paper has responded to reader concerns about changes on the weather page. Here's a sample of what he cited:

In the case of the weather page, The Bee made a series of changes at the beginning of the year that caused some unexpected negative reader feedback.
I wrote about the changes and the reader reaction to them almost two months ago. Here is the update.
Back by popular demand: Scoopy and his weather trivia question.
Back by popular demand: the flow of water into and out of regional dams.
Back by popular demand: easy-to-read tide tables.
And there have been several other changes, too...

The Bee, like other newspapers, has made changes that angered readers recently: reducing stock listings, changing the format of the weekly television guide, eliminating some Sunday comics. There's no way to do that that doesn't make some readers angry. But there there are ways to mitigate it.

The most successful changes in stock listings, for example, have come at papers where the newshole saved by eliminating vast tabular columns of stock results was partly repurposed to provide more business news, either as increased local business newshole or in the form of business news that sought to forecast trends and events. A paper that saved four pages of stock listings, for example, might dedicate one of them to those features, while banking savings from the other three.

Editors have also learned that asking readers to nominate favorite stocks for inclusion in the reduced results list also goes a long way to reducing their ire.

Similarly, The Bee was able to mitigate reader reaction to changes in the TV book. It was changed from a stitched and trimmed book to a standard tabloid to save production costs, and some readers just won't get beyond the fact that they preferred the former. But the paper was able to actually increase newshole and add back some listings and features (while still saving money on production); a surprising number actually rose to defend the paper when others complained, saying they preferred the new book.

Changes mandated by budget pressure are the worst, but editors also know that even changes that truly improve the paper overall will anger some readers. So be it; if we never made a change that caused objections, we'd still be running Gasoline Alley and the Katzenjammer Kids on the funny pages.

But by listening carefully and willingly readjusting to meet reader concerns whenever possible, we can go a long way toward treating readers better.

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