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Require an audience-first perspective across your newsroom

Audiences have choices – lots of choices. So, it is imperative that your newsroom understand the needs and interest of audiences from their perspective, not yours.

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

Audiences have choices – lots of choices. So, it is imperative that your newsroom understand the needs and interest of audiences from their perspective, not yours. This is not that easy for legacy newsrooms. The temptation is to jump to topics that you believe matter to audiences based on your journalistic background, expertise and assumptions. This leads you to continue the same coverage and content you already produce – and, in effect, imagine that your efforts have an audience focus when, in fact, they don’t.

To avoid this trap, start with questions about audiences – then use what you learn to guide content choices that inform audience lives, interests, needs, and problems – as well as to guide desk-level reviews of what is working and what is not working regarding audience goals:

Concerns Needs Connections Passions Preferences
–  Who and what do they really care about?

–  What day-to-day concerns occupy their minds, what daily problems are they trying to solve?

–  What uncertainties keep them up at night?

–  What big life decisions do they wrestle with?

–  What public issues are they wrestling with?

–  What do they need to navigate through the day and help with in-the-moment decisions?

–  What do they need to know to address their range of concerns?

–  What affects their lives that they need to stay current on?

–  What are they not even aware of that they need to know about?

–  What networks do they likely have?

–  Who would they want to share with?

–  Who would they be interested in knowing about?

–  What organizations or institutions would they want to be “in the know” about?


–  What do they want to experience?

–  What can they never seem to get enough of?

–  What prompts them to engage – to like, share, comment, sign-up?


–  When would they want to see certain content?

–  In what form would they like to see certain content (length, text or visuals, etc.)?

–  What would they like pushed to them?

–  What would they want to save and read/view at their leisure?

Ask, “What job(s) are we doing for our audiences?”

Require folks in your newsrooms – particularly at the desk level – to ask themselves, “What job(s) are we doing for our audiences?”

There are five jobs you might be doing, each of which is phrased from the point of view of an individual member of your audience. That is, imagine an individual in your community who needs help from your newsroom in one or more of the following ways:

  • Help me be an informed citizen in the place I live: Three particular sources of news and information can help you keep your audiences informed as citizens in the places they live: breaking news relevant to that place; trending news or information relevant to that place; and, calendar-based events/information relevant to that place.
  • Help me solve the necessities of my life: Your audiences must find ways to navigate the complex realities of the 21st century in the places they live: housing, health care, jobs, commuting, finance and money matters, technology choices and more.
  • Help me improve the quality of my life beyond the necessities: You can help your audiences seek to enrich and enjoy their lives beyond necessities: arts, entertainment, sports, vacations, learning opportunities, socializing, discovery and more.
  • Help me connect and work together with others to make the place we live together better: You can help folks in the places you serve connect with one another – even work with one another – in several ways including (1) using your convening power to gather folks with shared interests and purposes; (2) deploying social media in ways that connect people who have common interests; (3) reporting on and enhancing/growing organizations and coalitions tackling key local challenges – and more.
  • Hold those in power accountable: This is, of course, core to your classic journalism mission and purpose. In delivering this value to local audiences, it’s key to remember that in today’s market-driven society, holding the powerful accountable is not limited to government. It also includes holding the ever-more-powerful private sector accountable. For example, are banks and financial institutions serving your communities well? Health insurers? Major employers? Private sector polluters? And so forth.

Choose topics and content that matter to your audiences

Choose the topics and stories that best fit what you have learned about the needs, interests and problems of your target audiences. Redefine your beats in audience-first ways. Move away from broad generalities (government, business, the environment and so forth) in favor of audience-driven, audience-perspective beats. For example, instead of a desk or beat about education broadly, direct journalists, editors and those who support them (social editors, audience developers, product managers) to find, report and share information that helps parents navigate school choices, gain insights that matter to them and their kids about education policy choices, find opportunities for their own continuing education and so forth. (See the side bar on the concept of “obsessions” versus “beats”.)


Quartz’s idea of obsessions, circa 2012:

  • “… an ever-evolving collection of phenomena—the patterns, trends and seismic shifts that are shaping the world our readers live in … We call these phenomena our ‘obsessions.’” “Phenomena are the patterns, trends and seismic shifts that are shaping the world our readers live in.”

DMN’s adaptation of the idea with their definitions

  • “An Obsession is … a reporter’s focus or fixation on a phenomenon that is affecting people locally, whose coverage is guided by a strong sense of audience, and whose coverage (at least at this stage) supports at least six months of regular reporting.”