Getting readers' input for new-look ST - Aug 06, 2008 (ST)

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The Straits Times / The Business Times News On SPH

Getting readers' input for new-look ST

The Straits Times' search for answers on what its readers wanted has been a continuing effort in its 163-year history.

By Lynn Lee
Aug 06, 2008
The Straits Times

WHEN American consultants Bain & Company were asked by The Straits Times last year to suggest how the paper could be improved, one of the first things it did was to analyse the readership of Singapore's best-selling newspaper.

Who made up the paper's core readership? How many types of readers did it have? Which group should it target for special attention?

The result was an eye-opener for the paper's editors because Bain used a method different from what the paper traditionally used to survey its 1.3 million readers.

They came up with strange-sounding names too: There were tech-savvy sponges who soak up all sorts of news from the paper and then go online for more; news junkies who read from cover to cover; and time-starved scanners who had time only for headlines.

Bain recommended paying more attention to the spongers - a growing group in their 20s and 30s which had the greatest potential for growth.

More work would be needed to identify the needs of this group and what they wanted in a daily newspaper.

The Straits Times' search for answers on what its readers wanted has been a continuing effort in its 163-year history.

It is Singapore's most successful newspaper but one which faces the same challenges as its counterparts around the world, many of which are in serious decline.

Readers today have many choices, many of them freely available at no cost on the Internet or in freesheets.

What makes a reader part with 80 cents every day for the ST? And has the answer to this question changed over the years? What should the paper do to retain its readership?

Its hiring of the Bain consultants would be one of several efforts by the paper to find answers to these challenging questions.

Following that study, more focus group discussions were organised so editors could find out directly from readers what they liked or did not like about the paper.

Around 40 of them turned up to share their views last October.

Then, a readership survey of around 250 frequent readers was done in April.

The responses were sometimes heartening, sometimes painful to hear, but always candid.

It was clear that The Straits Times was a paper readers had strong feelings about - and whether they liked it or not, all wanted it to do well because it was Singapore's national paper.

Readers placed a very high value on ST's credibility and trustworthiness.

They liked the paper's award-winning enterprise journalism and its coverage of international news.

The Bain study, for example, found a large majority of respondents saying they would personally recommend the ST to their friends and colleagues.

Referring to this, Bain manager Chng Hak-Peng said it indicated a very high level of satisfaction with the product.

'We were very encouraged by this because it showed a high attachment to the paper. They cared about the paper and had strong views about it. As long as they do - doesn't matter whether they liked what they read - there's hope for us,' said ST editor Han Fook Kwang.

Their dislikes? Many complained about what they saw as the paper's overly pro-government stance.

Readers asked for more alternative viewpoints, and a greater variety of stories.

This year-long effort to canvass readers' views will finally end on Friday with the paper's revamp, with a new look and changes to its content.

But the work is far from finished and will not end with this change.

'Those of us who edit the paper - and I'm fortunate to have a very strong team in the newsroom - have to make choices every day.

'It's a ceaseless, ongoing job to keep improving,' Mr Han said.