Heritage Media Reader Focus Group provides lots of insight

“What is Heritage Media doing well,” we asked. “Not a lot,” was one reply. “Nothing” was another.

“What keeps you coming back to our website,” we inquired. “Desperate hope” and “Wishful thinking” were two responses.

That’s rough. But it’s honest and that’s what we want.

Heritage Media-West, publishers of eight weekly newspapers in and around Ann Arbor, Mich., and the website Heritage.com, decided to seek feedback from readers through an online survey, and also targeted key communicators through a reader focus group held Feb. 20 at the Southeast Michigan Media Lab. The response online was much more brutal than the focus group, but both methods of gathering feedback proved to be insightful.

We posted a link to our online survey on social media channels connected to our brands. Nineteen people responded. At the reader focus group, dozens of key communicators and community stakeholders — from school and government leaders to nonprofits, bloggers and loyal readers — were invited. Sixteen showed up to share their thoughts on our publications in Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, Saline, Milan, Chelsea, Dexter, Manchester and Belleville.

When asked what Heritage Media was doing well, online survey takers responded with some negative comments, as mentioned above, “Nothing” and “Not a lot,” but there were more positive replies, such as we pay attention to the needs of the community, late breaking stories, covering hyperlocal events and soliciting community-generated content, adopting social media, and local and regional news.

In response to the question, members of the reader focus group were very positive, citing our school coverage, use of social media, breaking news, use of student contributors and efforts in the Southeast Michigan Media Lab as things we are doing well. Stories are written in respect of all parties represented, a mix of local and regional news, use of University of Michigan news releases on the latest research and our collaborative approach with the community were also mentioned as things we are doing well.

We also asked both groups what we needed to improve upon. Online respondents said news needed to be more community specific and that reporters often missed important events.

“More thorough,careful reporting. Heritage Media is ‘news lite.’ Please invest in good journalists who can write well and go beyond the superficial,” one respondent wrote.

They also shared their frustration with our website, saying “the moving ads at the top (of the page) are irritating.”

“Stop all the over-the-top flashing and ads and do some news,” that same respondent wrote.

At the reader focus group, participants emphasized that we need to know what’s important to readers and report it. They also said coverage of local city, township and school meetings should be more comprehensive and we should improve our communication with local school officials.

A heavier emphasis on print was also mentioned. “A lot of folks aren’t using the Internet and count on their local newspaper as their only link to what’s happening in the community,” a member of the focus group wrote on one survey.

Another said we need to improve our local awareness, and promote the contributions of bloggers and community content.

They also were critical of the website and said reader comments aren’t monitored very well and result in harassment and bullying online. Another said we should improve our online format.

We wanted to know what Heritage Media could do to earn reader loyalty. Some respondents online and at the reader focus group assured us we already had it. Others said we need to ramp up our local news-gathering efforts and praised the establishment of the Southeast Michigan Media Lab to train community contributors. Most online respondents, however, had not heard of the media lab, while everyone at the focus group had as they were at the facility and watched a presentation about it.

To earn reader loyalty, one online respondent wrote: “Provide us with more local content. I don’t want to read about other cities in my paper or on the website of my paper.” This was a common theme. “Print more Saline news,” one person wrote. “I look for articles about the people of Saline, so increase the coverage of things going on within Saline and the school district,” another wrote online.

Reader focus group members said: “Continue to include news on items of local interest. There are many sources for regional, state and national news. Be the main source for local information.”

Another said, “More local news and less regional news. Readers use their weekly (newspaper) as a news source for items that aren’t important to larger media markets. Their school, local government news, and special interest stories specific to their community is what sells.”

When we asked what sort of stories do they prefer to read online versus print, online respondents rated government, sports and human interest as No. 1, followed by crime, traffic, reviews, columns and entertainment. This was an interesting response considering our crime coverage consistently generates three times more page views than anything else on our website and human-interest articles generally attract very few views. In print, they said they rated government coverage and human interest stories as top priorities, followed closely by sports, columns and crime.  Reviews rated lower and traffic reporting in print was supported by just one respondent.

When asked what keeps them coming back to our website, many of the online respondents were critical of our website. “Desperate hope,” “Wishful thinking” and “Nothing,” were among the comments. Another said, “I only go there if I have to. It’s too hard to read with all of the advertising, especially if it’s moving.”

“I rarely go there. Local content isn’t updated often enough,” another said. Interestingly, another said what keeps him coming back is that our website “quickly updates stories.”

Some respondents said they visited our website after a Facebook link caught their interest or they check regularly for weather, traffic and the latest updates.

We also asked both groups if they would be interested in contributing to our newspapers and websites. Focus group participants were very willing and even excited about the opportunity. School leaders offered up their student-generated sports content, teacher-driven posts and invited us to add the RSS feeds from their school websites and said we could re-purpose content for print. They were interested in blogging partnerships and invited us to present on campus about the Southeast Michigan Media Lab.

During a discussion, members of the reader focus group said it’s important that if someone from the school district or community takes the time to write up a news release or submits a photo get it in, or else community contributors will get frustrated and stop submitting content.

Online respondents appeared offended that we would ask for community contributions. One respondent wrote: “Now you want us to work for free and do the work for you?” Another said, “I pay for it. I shouldn’t have to provide it as well.”

“I am not a huge proponent of the trend to involve readers in creating coverage,” another wrote. “Readers aren’t trained as journalists, and I think it cheapens the professionalism of the field to say readers can do it just as well as people trained in the field. I also see a lot of pitfalls in terms of ethics and lack of transparency with reader-generated content.”

Still others were positive, saying they would be willing to offer news tips, write news releases for service clubs, write articles about school groups, on nutrition, and contribute opinion pieces.

Heritage Media migrated all of its prep sports to the website MiPrepZone/Washtenaw in the fall, so we wanted to find out if readers knew where to find their local sports.

One reader focus group member, whose son recently became a community contributor of Milan sports, said sports coverage has dramatically diminished in print, and he called it sad. He said he enjoys the website MiPrepZone, where local sports is shared, but wonders why some stories would appear in print, but not on the MiPrepZone. He also said the majority of the community doesn’t know about MiPrepZone/Washtenaw, and suggested we aggregate content from the site and share it at Heritage.com to drive readers there.

During the focus group discussion, it was suggested Heritage Media localize state and national stories more. They said we should take a broader-interest topic and get local comment or expert opinion on it. Find out what the local impact will be and report it. Tap into local expertise, they stressed. One member of the focus group praised our statewide government series and wants to see more collaboration with our sister publications to bring bigger issues to light. Participants also noted Heritage should write more updates or follow up on past articles.

Separate from the reader focus group and online survey, we heard from individuals who couldn’t attend but wanted to share their thoughts. One longtime Saline resident, a former reporter, said we need to become more relevant. Focus on local news and remember, “You’re in the business of making memories,” he said. He noted that we should include dean’s list honors and other “smaller moments” that give people pride in their hometowns and keep them interested in the newspaper. He said the goal should be to have people talking about what they read in their community newspaper.

Another reader from Ann Arbor said since we own several local news sites, we should “cross fertilize.”

“I would like to see a lot more state government news,” he wrote.

“I get my news both in print and online. Your online version has improved. It suffers from excessively aggressive pop-ups, which have sometimes caused me to quit,” he said.

Participants said they applaud our efforts to keep our publications relevant and alive given the state of the industry. They stressed that hyperlocal content is important and agreed with us that community contributions will help improve our local coverage. They want to see more of a community dialogue, more focus group discussions and they like the concept of the Southeast Michigan Media Lab, and encouraged us to reach out more to local business community, schools, government and nonprofits to seek contributions and teach media skills.

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