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Courtesy of Draxus

Courtesy of Draxus

One of the certainties of my life is this: if I were to go to my aunt’s house on a Sunday morning, my uncle would be sitting with the Observer at the kitchen table.

If I were to turn up and the paper were not on the table or – God forbid – a different paper were in the place of the aforementioned Observer, I think it would herald my last moments on earth before I died of shock.

There are some things you just don’t mess with.

My uncle is a Guardian reader. This says stuff about him. My grandpa reads The Telegraph. This says stuff about him too. It certainly says different stuff about them though.

But I am concerned: my uncle, recently retired, has a laptop. With internet abilities. He could, if he so chose, begin making his way into the murky world of internet news. Not only would this be cheaper, but would mean he could ‘branch out’. With no monetary cost to himself, he could read The Independent on a whim. Or gather his international news from The New York Times. Or he could even begin getting his sport from The Telegraph, which, frankly, pushes him into grandpa territory and I think that might be a step too far. (I have no worries about my grandpa doing anything as ludicrous as all this – he still can’t work the video machine. I think, at 88, he is quite happy to read his Telegraph at the breakfast table like a good stereotyped grandpa should.)

The paper people buy says a lot about them, but with the advent of online newspapers almost fifteen years ago one has to wonder whether in the future depicting someone as a Guardian or a Telegraph reader will mean nothing. After all, Shane Richmond asserts, audiences will read or watch whatever is the most convenient to them at the time.

The editors have had to face facts: (print) newspaper readership has fallen by five million in the past 15 years (interestingly, about the same amount of time newspapers have been online), according to a study released in 2007. Online readership is rising though, leaving editors to fight a battle for loyalty on a new medium.

But how to do this? It’s not easy.

In June 2008, the six biggest UK newspapers recorded around 95 million hits, of which 19.6 million came from the UK.

The report showed half of British users stayed loyal to one website, but that leaves almost 10 million readers floating about willy-nilly. This, quite frankly, is not good for business.

Courtesy of Peter de Wit

Courtesy of Peter de Wit

In the online world, ‘hits’ mean money – advertising money. So, if a paper has a loyal reader who checks the headlines once a day, good. But if they don’t have a loyal reader – and remember there are 10 million dis-loyal readers out there – they might only get said reader once a week. Not good.

Editors are faced with the problem of how to a) attract readers to a website and b) keep them there. Attracting readers seems to be done via search engine optimisation (SEO), – also known as the death of the witty headline. There is much to be said on this topic, but not today. B) is the focus for this week: keeping them there.

The Telegraph (whose newsroom, by the way, is very pretty and very high-tech) has created My Telegraph in a bid to keep their readers loyal. And it’s a clever idea: essentially, it has become a meeting place for Telegraph readers to share ideas and thoughts. If anything, this is going to make them more loyal by reinforcing their own ideals. Plus, the interactive side of things keeps people coming back – it’s the feeling of being needed and being involved. People like it.

Other websites have started similar things – the Guardian’s Comment is Free, or the BBC’s Have Your Say section. Both are very successful. Both have a loyal following. One wonders: is this perhaps what will create a new loyalty?

Perhaps the stereotype will not die. Perhaps it will just be created differently. Perhaps, when I have children and I bring them to my sisters’ houses, they will become used to the sight of uncle wotsit scanning his blog on the Guardian. Perhaps it will become one of the certainties in their lives.

Who knows.