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Understanding our audience is where the action lies for newspapers today. So on a late fall Saturday a host of editorial, marketing, advertising, circulation and production staffers fanned out across Orange County to interview readers.

It was our second annual "reader sweep." Newsroom executives, beat reporters, senior VPs, ad sales people-we all rang doorbells and visited malls, talking to a couple of thousand people of all ages and types about our newspapers-their newspaper. Almost all were ready and willing to talk about what a newspaper means to them.

When we pored through the pages and pages of notes from our Saturday walkabout, we came up with some interesting conclusions about newspapers and their audiences:

Basic social issues, topics that newspapers have traditionally covered in greater depth, are of interest to people of all age groups. This informal survey underscored what research continues to tell us-the gut interests of the younger audience are close to those of older readers.

The No. 1 interest for individuals in the 18-24 age category, and 35-44, and 45-54 and 55-64-as well as 65 and above-is crime. It has an overall 70% interest level.

National and international news rank second in "extreme interest" with those 25 and above, while the 18-25 group puts environmental issues second and national/international news third. The environment was third with most other groups.

When asked what they would like to see as "potential changes to the newspaper," 68% say "follow-up reports that update stories" is the No. 1 priority. More than half say they would like to see more explanations of complex issues. Again, age doesn't play a significant role in the ratings.

People look to their local newspaper for specifics on advertised product features, availability and price. I talked with one impeccably dressed gentleman who said he subscribed to the Register, three other local and national newspapers and two newsmagazines. The conversation took place in front of a Kmart, where he had purchased some sale items. The Register's Kmart ad was stuck in the pocket of his sports jacket. A bargain is a bargain.

Is the typical Orange County resident an older WASP reading the business page or carefully allotting a fixed retirement income? Hardly. Like many regions of the country, Orange County has changed significantly in the last decade; one local social services agency here can and must speak 56 different languages and dialects, including signing.

With personal computer usage growing, we asked for ideas for on-line services. In all age categories the "ability to shop through an on-line newspaper computer service" ranked as the No. 1 "excellent idea." Next came "could choose customized paper," followed by "could call paper and request information be faxed."

Many of the people in our front porch/curbside "focus group" asked us what the newspaper of the future will look like.

We said we look forward to becoming "Information Inc." by the end of the century, utilizing various presentation formats, aiming at more niches to meet demand for customized information.

Along with many other newspapers nationwide we have developed zone products, acquired weekly or semi-weekly community newspapers and produce a raft of total-market or zoned sections.

Like many of our peers, the Register now offers database marketing services, voice services, on-line services, customized market research, creative services, commercial printing-and the list goes on, as it must if newspapers are to continue to compete.

Mr. Redfern is senior VP-sales and marketing at the Orange County (Calif.) Register.

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