Old Customers Beat No Customers

Commentary



photograph by Diego.cervo

Think of a business that, in an effort
 to attract new customers, changes its product in such ways that it loses existing customers.

Take U.S. car makers in the 1960s. They kept making cars bigger, more expensive than customers wanted. It’s taken a half-century for them to recover.

How about daily newspapers, and the latest example, USA Today. In the process of redesigning USA Today for its 30th anniversary, they made the newspaper much harder to read. Here’s what one reader wrote:

“After a 30-year subscription, I am sorry to say my husband and I agree we will let our subscription expire. The print was difficult to read.”

Another said, “The font’s too small, ink’s too light, all crammed into an uncomfortable reading format … after 25+ years … I told my wife to stop buying it.”

The problem is that all the publisher’s men (and women) huffed and puffed to make the newspaper look more like the Internet. Apparently, they were totally oblivious to the fact that they also made the newspaper harder to read.

Shouldn’t it be obvious that nothing is more important in publishing than readability?

College journalism students traditionally have been taught to write to a sixth grade level. Not because the readers are sixth graders, but because a simple writing style is easier and faster for everyone to read. It’s more readable.

One reader summed up USA Today’s changes as, “Just one more instance of inept newspaper management failing to survey their core readership to discover that most wear eyeglasses.”

What is really remarkable, too, is that among countless professional critiques of the new layout, none mentions what every reader discovered in seconds, that the newspaper became less legible.

USA Today has announced since that it is now “listening to readers. We’ve darkened and enlarged the typeface throughout the newspaper.”

Well, sorta. But that’s the serif typeface. 
The paper is still crammed with copy in small, skinny, sans serif type like this that is almost impossible to read.

It’s inconceivable that editors didn’t know beforehand that the type in the new layout was harder to read. My wife discovered it at first glance. Clearly, somebody said, “The hell with readers. I like it.”

The majority of readers of all newspapers in America are older. The median age in the U.S. is 45.2 years and increasing. The median age of newspaper readers is increasing faster. Legibility is far more important to readers than layout or logos.

Instead of attracting younger readers, I’d bet my subscription that they’ll lose far more older readers who now find it too hard, too much trouble.

In our house we still subscribe to three daily newspapers. I can’t even imagine waking up without a morning newspaper. Nobody really knows what the future is for newspapers, but many publishers seem to be writing their own obituaries.

Just as other businesses, the future of all newspapers might be brighter if they paid attention to existing customers.

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