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Reader focus groups


In this lesson, student journalists are guided through the process of holding reader focus groups to benefit their publication. Students learn how to prepare for the focus groups, including what questions to ask and how to lead the groups.


  • Publication staffers will develop stronger content through reader focus groups.
  • Students will assess audience needs by surveying readers and having guided conversations about the publication’s role in the school community.

Common Core State Standards

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.5 Develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach, focusing on addressing what is most significant for a specific purpose and audience. (Editing for conventions should demonstrate command of Language standards 1–3 up to and including grades 11–12 here.)


50 minutes

(This is the minimum amount of time you’ll need to prepare your staff for reader focus groups. You’ll need more advance notice to advertise the focus groups, find a space and conduct the focus groups.)


Old copies or archives of your publication

A brainstorming board (whiteboard or large butcher paper)

Lesson step-by-step

(Note: there are no time guidelines here. Let this be an organic discussion that evolves based on the apparent needs of your team.)

Explain to your students that they are going to prepare and plan two different reader focus sessions at your school. These sessions will be 20-minute guided conversations, led by your staffers, that allow any and all of your readers to be brought into the process of creating the publication. This is an opportunity to connect with everyone the publication serves — students, teachers, administrators and even parents.  Before you can plan and advertise your focus groups, you have some internal work to do as a staff. The steps below will guide you through that preparation, but they are not one-size-fits-all. The process is general, so take care to consider your staff’s needs throughout.

(Tip: Have a student editor take notes throughout this entire discussion as your editors lead this preparation process.)

1. Identify your need

Start by having a frank discussion with your staff: How much do we engage with our readers to cover content in a way that is engaging and relevant to them? In what ways are we doing this well? In what ways are we doing this poorly? What do we expect our readers, both our most supportive and our most critical, might say about our publication?

2. Determine goals

What is your staff hoping to get out of these focus groups? Work to identify three short-term goals and three long-term goals from the reader focus groups. This could be anything from higher demand and larger circulation to more letters to the editor, greater interest in joining staff or increased yearbook sales. The key is to be specific and write these goals on the brainstorming board.

3. Divide and conquer

Now, break students into six small groups. Each will spend 5-10 minutes thinking about one of the goals just listed. The idea is to brainstorm anything and everything that could affect reaching that goal. Think from all perspectives — staff angle, budget angle, content angle, time demands, reader expectations. This is a free-form brainstorm, so just write down ideas as they come.

4. Focus on the reader

Now, using the information generated by the small groups, come back together as a class to the six goals you listed. List on the board next to each goal how readers play into those goals. You’ll start to notice that some goals are inherently tied to your readers, while others might be more internal. Narrow down the 2-3 goals that moderately or heavily involve readers. These will be the emphasis of your focus groups; the other goals should be dissected during an in-service focus group with your staff.

5. Generate the questions

Using the 2-3  goals that are reader-focused, generate a list of open-ended questions (around 10) that will help elicit information from your readers during the focus group. As a staff, work with the wording and approach of the questions so that they are clear and engaging (just like you would for an interview).  Once you have narrowed down your list of questions, consider adding 3-5 “demographic” questions to open the discussion during your focus group. These might be questions like:

  1. When the newspaper comes out, how many stories do you typically read? What section do you turn to first?
  2. What is the major reason you do or do not buy a yearbook?
  3. What content do you skip?
  4. What content is most important to you in the newspaper/yearbook?

6. Preparing for and executing the focus groups

Now that you have your questions generated, decide on a time and place for your focus groups. For many schools, a lunchtime focus group in a classroom with free pizza is a great way to draw in a crowd (advertise one slice per reader, and close the session when you run out of pizza or the room is full). Or, have your staff bake goodies to munch on during the focus group. Remember to schedule two different focus groups in the same week to attract a wide variety of readers.

Advertise your focus group a week ahead of time with flyers, posters, morning announcements — any earlier, and your readers will forget. Send specific invitations to administration and teachers. Tip: Call it something other than a focus group. A reader jam, an open house, a “pub” chat. Anything but “focus group.”

Make sure the room is comfortable, and arrange chairs in a circle. Have copies of your publication in the center for readers to reference.

Have 2-3 editors lead each focus group, one asking questions, another taking detailed notes. Explain the purpose of the sessions — to get reader feedback on what works, what doesn’t, their likes and dislikes, so that your publication can better serve the student community.

As you begin to ask questions, let there be silence. Students will open up and chat, but it might take a moment to break the ice. Be sure that those leading the discussion can make it feel like a conversation, not a test.

Ask, chat, talk, discuss. Let the conversation unfold naturally, and try to make sure you hit on all your questions.

Finally, at the end, thank the readers for their input, and invite them into your publications room to see the magic and develop a stronger connection to what your staff produces.

7. Staff debrief

After both focus groups are finished, task the editors with compiling the notes and writing a memo to share with the staff. Discuss this memo with all staffers, and return to your goals and brainstorming notes to see how the reader suggestions match the needs/desires of the staff. What can be implemented? What suggestions come from confusion or misunderstanding on the readers part, and how can that be fixed? What suggestions will need more time or information to implement? What suggestions don’t align with the goals of the staff, and why not? Finally, use the reader suggestions to reevaluate or tweak your short- and long-term goals. Perhaps they all match, or perhaps you’ll have identified a new direction for staff improvement.