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Find competitive advantages that combine audience needs with what you can be best at

This step begins your transition from instilling an audience-first perspective across your newsroom toward getting good at identifying and serving targeted audience segments.

This is an excerpt from “Table Stakes: A Manual for Getting in the Game of News,” published Nov. 14, 2017. Read more excerpts here.

Now you need to start finding competitive advantages that combine (1) significant audience needs and opportunities and (2) what your news enterprise is or could be best at – particularly your strengths and knowledge related to what’s local. This step begins your transition from instilling an audience-first perspective across your newsroom toward getting good at identifying and serving targeted audience segments.

Remember: metro, local and regional news organizations no longer enjoy monopoly or oligopoly market positions that assure financial success. Instead, you compete with many, many others. That means you must find competitive advantages on which to build journalistic and financial sustainability.

Moreover, because metro, local and regional news enterprises are so often geographically constrained, competitive advantages and sustainability will most likely arise from audience needs and interests that are local (whether entirely or just significantly). Yes, scalable strategies might emerge from serving audiences beyond your geography. For example, the Boston Globe has launched a medical/health related effort called STAT that is growing audiences far beyond Boston.

STAT, though, is an exception. It is more likely that your news enterprise’s competitive advantages and sustainability will come from creating and monetizing value locally – within and not beyond your geographic footprint.

Your challenge, then, is finding competitive advantage sweet spots where sizeable and attractive audiences’ local needs overlap with your enterprise’s existing and/or new strengths, brands and assets.

Put differently: Where is the overlap between what local audiences want and what you are or could be best at?

What local audiences want/need

Three audience characteristics – separately and in combination – mark attractive opportunities:

Shared/common interests

When the Minneapolis Star Tribune sought to learn more about an audience-first approach, they decided to experiment with local audiences they believed were passionate. And, because it was late winter/early spring, one of the audiences selected were Twins fans. Similarly, when Miami experimented with the “Inc” approach, they began with “Food Inc.” Each of these – sports, food – is an example of defining and serving audiences based on the shared/common interests of those audiences. Others might include entertainment, music, movies, hiking, biking, automobiles, education, commuting, retirement – frankly, zillions of things.

The key is defining and delivering content from the perspective of the audience’s shared interest, not from yours. For example, you and your colleagues ought to discuss the different implications for coverage between, say, Twins versus Twins fans, food versus foodies, commuting versus commuters, education versus parents, students and teachers – and so forth.

Also remember that organizations of all types ­– businesses, nonprofit, religious, governmental – can have shared interests. Dallas Fort Worth, for example, has a concentration of aviation, airline and aerospace enterprises while Philadelphia has a high concentration of colleges and universities. These enterprises, in turn, have audiences of leaders, employees, employee families, suppliers, customers and supporters who also share common interests for professional and economic reasons.

Shared purposes

There’s a powerful distinction between folks who share a common interest versus people and/or organizations that actively pursue that interest together for shared purposes. In this situation, communities emerge that are built around these shared purposes. And stronger, more loyal audience connections become possible because, on top of the shared/common interests involved, shared purpose communities also might look to your content, coverage, convening power and other approaches to (1) help them as communities stay connected to one another and their purposes; and, (2) help them achieve their shared purposes.

Consider people and organizations that work together to make folks in your markets healthier – or better housed, better banked, better educated and so forth. Or, think about clubs of various sorts – exploration, athletic competition, arts, etc. Or, think about religious or ethnic groups who band together for various shared purposes.

You can discover such communities of shared purpose in real life as well as online. Shared purpose audiences may be smaller than audiences built on shared/common interests. But, because of these audiences’ strong connections to one another and their purposes, their value as audiences (especially those that also include organizations) rises because of a stronger propensity to become loyal paying customers, greater likelihood of appealing to advertisers, higher odds of providing additional revenue sources (e.g. events) and greater likelihood of sharing your content and value with others.


Place – where people and enterprises live, work, operate and exist – also might give rise to a strong sense of shared identity, especially when history, language, weather, and other elements of local culture reinforce that identity. Yes, technology, markets, and networks have disrupted the way folks live and experience place. But these forces have not eliminated place – have not eliminated local realities.

Your local audiences still must navigate much of their lives locally. As described earlier, they need to be informed citizens in the places they live – and solve the necessities and enhance the quality of their lives locally. And, plenty of folks (and organizations) band together to make the places they live better.

Discovering, covering and informing uniquely local aspects can differentiate what you do from other and especially national or global news and social media competitors. Consider, for example, health care. Yes, your newsroom might cover the national political aspects related to health care. It’s not clear, though, what or how such national coverage differentiates you or provides a source of competitive advantage. On the other hand, pretty much everyone who lives in your metro area must figure out how to deal with health locally: how to live healthier, find affordable health insurance, navigate choices of local health care providers and so forth.

These local needs and interests cannot be served well by national or global news organizations. Nor is it likely that social platforms will have full-time employees dedicated to understanding and responding to such uniquely local phenomena. But you can.

What you are or could be best at

Three potential sources of strengths – separately and in combination – mark attractive opportunities:

Drawing on the best parts your newsrooms’ past

Your legacy news enterprise has a range of capabilities, track record, brands and other assets on which to build competitive advantages in providing value to audiences, including your:

  • Authenticity of perspective and voice based on physical presence in the community
  • Trusted brand
  • Credibility based on decades of reporting on the same place
  • News judgment of what matters based on wide knowledge of the community across time
  • Insights developed through knowledge of, and access to, better sources
  • Authority based on years of service to the community
  • Convening power

Tapping into your strengths that link to place and what is local

Your newsroom knows – or should know – your communities socially, politically, economically, religiously, culturally and otherwise. You have decades of unique local knowledge, sensibilities and perspectives that are difficult for others, including scale-based digital media efforts, to replicate:

  • Placing and translating national and global issues and phenomena into the local context – “Why and how does this matter to where I live, work, and play?”
  • Making connections across the metro area for audiences with shared/common interests – “Are there others nearby who share my interest and concerns?” “I’m part of how this community is changing but what do I need to know about its past and understand about its workings in order to fit in and be accepted as who I am and be part of its future?”
  • Identifying and serving existing and emerging shared purpose communities– “When and how do we come together as a community to solve X?”
  • Identifying and informing as well as convening and encouraging people and organizations wishing to make the place you serve better

Shaping a narrative that expresses the uniqueness of your place

Your newsroom is uniquely positioned to serve your community of place more generally by developing, playing-up, and branding yourselves and your efforts around a strong curated and understood “sense of place” that is unique.

For example, in revitalizing Miami.com, the Miami Herald worked with the adage that “in Miami even the locals sometimes feel like tourists” to define a target audience of those interested in discovering and experiencing the city, whether arriving tourists looking “to do what the locals do,” or long-time residents just trying to keep up with what’s happening in the ever-changing city. And in defining its audience focused “obsessions,” the Dallas Morning News included “Texana,” which informed and celebrated what being a Texan is really about and really means in today’s Texas – all toward developing an inclusive Texan identify that went well beyond the traditional clichés of cowboys with or without ten gallon hats.