By Kevin Slimp
Institute of Newspaper Technology

I spoke on the topic of customer service at the Ohio Newspaper Association convention in February.

Shortly after, I received an email asking if I would lead a webinar in late summer or early fall for all the staffs of member papers of ONA, covering the same material.

I agreed but didn’t feel right about using the same material. After all, surely there would be some people present during the webinar who sat through the original presentation.

Recently before the webinar, I created a survey about customer service at newspapers and asked Facebook friends not affiliated with the newspaper industry to complete the short questionnaire. I hoped maybe 20 or 30 would take the time and give me some fresh, interesting information to use during the webinar.

I was pretty surprised to learn that more than 200 folks had completed the survey over the next few hours, and their answers weren’t exactly what I expected.

Of the respondents, 38 percent reported subscribing to a newspaper, while 62 percent answered that they did not.

Next, I asked subscribers: “What are your biggest pet peeves concerning your newspaper?”

By a large margin, “Not enough local content” took the prize. A full 38 percent of newspaper subscribers answered that lack of local content is their biggest pet peeve.

OK, that might not have been a huge surprise. How­ever, their response to the second question did shock me.

Just fewer than 22 percent of newspaper subscribers answered that “Poor writing” was their top pet peeve. Honestly, I didn’t think poor writing would crack the top five.

Delivery problems and poor design tied for third, with each receiving 13 percent. Billing and other problems followed in single digits.

And what about people who don’t subscribe to a newspaper?

“Poor writing” took the top spot with a hefty 37 percent responding that was their top pet peeve.

The number two reason respondents gave for not subscribing to a newspaper was “Not enough local news,” at 27 percent.

I gained some useful in­­sights from the nonsubscribers for my customer service webinar. A full 26 percent answered that their main reason for not subscribing was either “Delivery problems” (14 percent) or “Customer service” (12 percent).

When asked about the price of newspapers, 51 percent of nonsubscribers responded with “The price is too high.”

I learned several things from this survey that will make me a better newspaper consultant.

First, a large number of subscribers and nonsubscribers say there is not enough local news in their newspapers. That didn’t surprise me, and it’s been on my checklist.

Second, there is more concern over writing than I suspected. Sure I figured Mrs. Feathers, my high school English teacher, lost sleep over writing quality. But a large percentage of both groups, especially nonsubscribers, seem to feel that poor writing is a major problem with their newspapers.

I will probably stress good design a little more than I have in the past. If 13 percent of readers say their biggest pet peeve with their newspaper is poor design, then it’s something we should all watch closely.

It might not seem like there is a lot we can do when folks feel like the price is too high.

But when I look more closely at these numbers, I realize that for a good number of subscribers and nonsubscribers, the price might seem high because they feel like the quality isn’t where it should be.

Some fixes are easier than others. Go through the following list with your staff and see which area could be addressed most quickly and make a plan.

• Local content

• Writing

• Design

• Delivery issues

• Customer service.

Then create a long-term strategy to guide your newspaper toward improvement in all five areas.

Kevin Slimp works as a newspaper industry trainer, speaker, writer and consultant.