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How Do You Fight the Summer Reader Drought?

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The Editor Mason Lerner Is Trying to Reach for a Story on the Summer Slowdown

Sometimes a reporter gets an assignment he or she thinks will be easy money, but it turns out to be much more challenging than expected. Such was the case with this very story—about how content providers deal with the recurring summer readership drought. It turns out that while the summer slump isn’t what it used to be, there are still factors that make the summer slowdown a very real obstacle.

Apparently, editors going on vacation is one of those factors. But not every editor was on vacation, so here’s what I was able to learn from speaking with them:

The summer slowdown used to be very real, but like John Travolta’s hair, it’s not as real as it used to be. Not too long ago, media companies bunkered down the hatches during summer. Television networks were relying on reruns by April. Daily papers expected to see circulation drop because so many people were on vacation. Internet 1.0 websites experienced similar patterns.

But these days, publishers are finding that the summer slowdown has been blunted by several factors—primarily the explosion of mobile and the global proliferation of web readers.

“Everybody’s wired,” said Ron Matejko, president of MVP Media, which publishes sports and professional wrestling content for the iPad, says mobile devices have created a huge opportunity for publishers during the summer. “Even on vacation, people are still glued to their phones, iPads, or whatever devices they may have.”

But mobile devices haven’t eliminated the summer slowdown completely. Sometimes the problem isn’t getting readers to check in; it’s creating the content while editors and writers/reporters are on vacation.

Matt Largey, news editor at KUT Radio, NPR’s affiliate in Austin, said KUT’s website experiences a 10-to-20-percent drop in traffic during the summer months.

“If you just look around here during the summertime, any given week you have one, two, or three people on vacation,” he sad. “We’re a rather small operation, so if you extrapolate that out …”

How to speed up when things slow down

Largey said one of the strategies KUT uses to deal with a vacation-time skeleton crew is to create content that makes the summer special. It’s a tried and true strategy that’s been around since those ancient times when print media ruled the Earth.

“We do a summer series called Summer School that is kind of fun,” Largey said. “It’s not particularly newsie. It’s a series where a reporter goes out and learns something new. It’s multimedia, on the radio and our website. It’s something we do to attract more people to our website.”

Publishers also have to think way beyond their local and domestic audience. The entire world is hungry for content, and appealing to an international audience is a proven way to attract readers year round.

“One of the things that places are noticing is the importance of traffic internationally and how that affects things that we’re looking at,” said Sree Sreenivasan, chief digital officer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. “The country that’s the most surprising on news site traffic is India. India is number two or number three for everything from The New York Times to NPR to The New Yorker just because of all the English speakers there. In India, they’ve never heard of National Public Radio, but they’re showing up on their website. The New Yorker might sell two subscriptions in all of India, but their website is huge there.”

Matejko agreed. He said it isn’t uncommon for him to wake up to a slew of tweets from around the world about his content. “Thirty percent of our Twitter followers are from outside of the U.S.,” Matejko said. “These people can access our content any place, any time. It’s just a matter of monitoring your readership … and heeding those demands.”

Sreenivasan explained why publishers like Matejko are literally attracting readers in every waking moment.

“We’ve changed as a society. We’ve changed as consumers,” Sreenivasan said. “We’ve changed as people who manage our time in different ways. All of that, I think, is reflected in changes that we’re seeing in traffic patterns on websites. When websites first came along, there was a bell curve. People on the East Coast went to their offices and at nine o’clock, traffic would start on your website. It would start peaking around noon, one o’clock, two o’clock, and start going downhill from there before petering out.”

“A lot has changed now because people are going online when they wake up, ” he added. “They’re not driving to work, sitting at a desk, and thinking, ‘Oh, I’m going to go on the web.’ They’re just on the web automatically—for social, email, and links through the iPad, iPhone, and all of that.”

Don’t concede

There is no reason to accept a summer slowdown as inevitable. These days, a publisher can attract a large audience any time of year as long as they are churning out compelling content.

Manhattan’s summer is Rio de Janeiro’s winter. The audience is out there. It’s just a matter of identifying it and giving them what they want.

It’s also important to note that no matter how much and how quickly the world changes, people will likely always take breaks and behave differently during the summer months. Nothing—absolutely nothing—will be able to fully fight the truisms expressed by Will Smith in his classic ode, “Summertime.”

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