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RELISHING RESEARCH: A PRO LOOKS BACK Gannett's Neft traces the impact of surveys and analysis across a quarter-century.

Ask David Neft what's changed in 25 years of newspaper market research and he'll offer a simple answer: "Well, first of all, there's more of it."

Neft retired in January as vice president of research for Gannett Co. Inc. of McLean, Va., a job he unabashedly enjoyed. In recounting his experiences in working with Gannett papers over the years, Neft points out that research touches all newspaper departments over time -- directly and indirectly.

Take the proliferation of entertainment sections, a development he says pretty much began two decades ago when research showed readers had a hunger for such information. Back then, the largest weekday circulation fell on Wednesday, food day. "Now, for most newspapers, it's the day the entertainment section comes out," he says. Creating that section and keeping it going involved changes in the newsroom, advertising and production.

Similar research for the circulation department, "focusing on the daily life of people," has led to earlier delivery times for morning papers, but also to strengthened recovery runs to restock single copy outlets -- research showed that as much as one-quarter of single copy sales are made between 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. And research has helped guide newspapers in their work with convenience stores and other retail locations as to where best to place sales racks.

Research has long been associated with revenue generation, and Neft points out why: "It takes more effort and more intelligence to sell advertising than there was 25 years ago." Retail stores increasingly are owned by "sophisticated corporations," not hometown individuals, putting pressure on newspapers to have data to show an advertiser why they're a good buy. "You've got to do more to convince them," Neft says.

"Advertisers just want to know how many people read your newspaper and who they are," he says, but answering that question requires "unbiased information" gained through surveys. Focus groups are helpful in the process of defining what exactly needs to be researched, Neft says, but they are not useful in defining what readers want because a focus group is "qualitative, not quantitative."

That does make a focus group useful in getting gut reactions, though. "It shows what's on people's minds," Neft says, pointing to their use in gauging responses to front-page redesign prototypes, or gathering immediate reaction to a new product just after its launch.

His reflections on the attacks of Sept. 11 brings out Neft's thinking as a researcher. Will the attacks change what people want to read? Will readers have a sustained heightened interest in world and national news? Will they continue to be reluctant to fly? If so, what will they do with their time?

"You get to the first layer," Neft says, "and you get down to the consequences of it." For example, north country snowbirds may curtail their travels to the South in winter -- but, Neft says, research at Gannett's paper in Fort Myers, Fla., shows that "an amazing number of the snowbirds" drive there, not fly.

"Your body of knowledge that you have from before the event comes into play," he says, noting that Gannett has assembled a library of more than 400 newspaper studies. "It makes it much easier for us to recognize the significance of specific data because we've seen so many studies at so many newspapers."

While advertisers may be national in their sales, newspapers are not. Experiments in research in the early 1980s showed that, "God bless them, all markets are different," Neft says. "You cannot do across-the-board research and help your newspapers. It has to be customized, market by market."

At the same time, the continuity of approach afforded by the Reader Profile Service of the Audit Bureau of Circulations of Schaumburg, Ill., is a major step forward, in Neft's estimation. The standardization of reader research puts newspapers on better footing with advertisers, he says, because now markets can more readily be compared, and a newspaper's value is being described in ways that mimic broadcast media, which plays better with advertisers.

While the impact of the service has yet to be felt fully -- give it another 18 months, Neft says, so advertisers have enough participating newspapers to make worthwhile comparisons -- it prepares the industry to serve advertisers better by ensuring uniform reporting of survey results, and preventing distortions.

"You can't have an ABC audit of biased research," he says, because the ground rules will prevent that from happening. And if a publisher doesn't like the results, "you can't just spin the information" -- once ABC gets involved, nothing will be held back.

Neft anticipates having little idle time in retirement, with plans to do some consulting, pursue his hobby as a sports historian and statistician (he maintains a demographic database on athletes, especially pro football players), and write more books on sports.

He expects the work of people who follow him will be harder for a while -- resistance to answering surveys has grown in recent years -- but technology has a way of changing things for the better.

"I believe that in the future," Neft says, "you're not going to be able to do a really good study that is done by one mode of interviewing," which until now has been the telephone. If convergence really happens and everyone becomes reachable through several channels, "inherently that helps us."

Human nature being what it is, though, Neft isn't terribly worried about getting readers to answer a survey: "We have the advantage of subject matter -- people really want to sound off about their newspaper. Once we've gotten people 30 seconds into the interview, we've got 'em."

-- P.W.
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Title Annotation:David Neft retires from vice president of research at Gannett Co.
Comment:RELISHING RESEARCH: A PRO LOOKS BACK Gannett's Neft traces the impact of surveys and analysis across a quarter-century.(David Neft retires from vice president of research at Gannett Co.)
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 25, 2002
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