We sat in a darkened room, waiting.
Twelve Buffalo News people -- high-ranking editors, the publisher, the president, the head of circulation, the design director -- were gathered one evening last week to observe two focus groups. We had come to watch as our readers, and former readers, were shown some proposed changes to the Sunday Buffalo News; we wanted their opinions before we move forward.
Rhonda Ried, who runs a local market-research company, ushered the first group (the former or occasional readers) into a room adjacent to ours. On the wall between the two rooms is a large one-way window. We could see them; they could not see us, although they knew they would be observed and recorded.
They filed in. A customs broker, a stay-at-home mom, a domestic-abuse counselor, a bookkeeper -- nine men and women, urban and suburban, mostly middle-aged. Each would be paid $75 to sit around a large table for an hour and a half, sharing their views.
Ried began with some general questions. What do you like best about the Sunday paper?
The answers came back quickly.
"Definitely, the coupons."
"For sure, the coupons."
Nary a dissenting voice marred the unanimous judgment.
The editors in the room were slightly stunned. I vaguely recall putting my head down briefly on the table in front of me and closing my eyes.
Later, the second group filed in. Same drill. The question from Ried, the sure answers from the participants: Coupons, coupons, coupons.
To understand our reaction, you'd have to know the importance we place on the journalism in the Sunday paper. It's the day we publish our best writing and reporting, the day we lavish the most attention on page design, the day we feature our top columnists. It's the home of our premier feature section, Spotlight, and our most comprehensive sports coverage.
"It was humbling," said Deputy Managing Editor Stan Evans, who has edited many an investigative series and led the coverage of our biggest news events from the crash of Flight 3407 to last summer's City Grill tragedy.
"We tend to think we're pretty important, but there's no way a journalist could leave that room with a big ego."
Of course, we know our readers -- and Buffalo people in general -- are a cost-conscious lot. That's part of why we began the MoneySmart section on Monday a couple of years ago with its Discount Diva columnist and lots of personal-finance news, and why we so often feature "pocketbook" stories on our front page -- stories about gas prices, Social Security and the cost of health insurance.
Still, we weren't prepared for this.
As the focus group discussions went on, the news got a little better. We found that many of the participants are close readers of the paper, familiar with almost every detail of the Sunday paper's offerings. And we got plenty of good advice on the design and content changes we're thinking about.
One comic moment came at the end of the second session. Ried, on our behalf, had shown the participants various versions of the front page, local and business sections, and asked their opinions about some new features.
As she concluded, one loyal reader piped up to say that he didn't much care what changes we made.
"Even if I don't like it," he said, "I'm going to keep buying it." Someone in our room muttered, "Clone that man."
And then we went home. News people and focus group participants all left through the same door, out into the twilight.
For a few moments on this muggy July evening, we crossed paths as we found our cars in the parking lot -- managing editor, database administrator, page designer, warehouse supervisor.
Some were a little richer, some a little humbler. I'd call it a success all around.