a) The lost past of general news for general audiences
This first Table Stake goes to the heart of what has destabilized metro newsrooms with the rise of digital media over the past 20 years. In the past, metro newspaper audiences (readers) were defined in broad terms. Publishers offered a daily bundle of content that spanned a great range beyond news – everything from comics to stock quotes. The audience was anyone interested in any part of the content provided. This audience and content strategy was sometimes described as “general news for general audiences” but it was also “lots of stuff for lots of people.”
In this approach, little was required in terms of really understanding any particular audience or targeting content to serve their unique needs. At most, the circulation department might develop survey-based statistics on the basic demographics of subscribers and use accepted formulas to derive the estimated total number of readers based on copies circulated.
Today, much of the audience for much of that “stuff” is gone, siphoned away by specialized websites and apps, aggregation sites offering even more stuff, search sites that handle specific queries, and social platforms that flow news and information into the friends and family stream of people’s personal lives. This includes audiences for the actual news content, particularly national and international news.
The advertising base that supported all that general content is also shrinking rapidly, stripped away directly and indirectly by new players. Facebook and Google directly amass and precisely target a far larger audience in a metro newspaper’s local market than the paper can or ever could. Less directly but just as effectively, programmatic advertising networks amass and target a large local market audience by aggregating traffic across a wide range of content websites, often including your metro, local or regional enterprise.
It’s a completely disrupted and entirely different world. National and global players such as Facebook reach more audiences in your local market than you do yourselves. The market outsider knows more about the digital presence, behaviors, needs and habits of the local audience than you, the market insider. And these outsiders use this knowledge to precisely target audience segments in and across local markets.
How well do you compete against Facebook in local audience?
If your metro area has 4,000,000 residents and Facebook is used by 65% of them on a monthly basis, they have a monthly reach of 2,600,000 local uniques. If these users access Facebook an average of five times a week, they amass over 56,000,000 monthly visits in your market. How do these Facebook in-market uniques and visits compare with yours?
How well do you compete with Facebook on knowing your local audience?
Facebook knows a great deal about its users in your market — their friends and family members, their personal timeline, all their “likes” and activity on other sites (through Facebook log-ins) — and uses this information to target ads and content to them. This raises the challenge of how your newsroom can know and serve its local audience better than an algorithm with a rich data feed.
b) The imperative to focus on audience segments in the face of unprecedented competition
Local enterprises faced with game-changing disruption from outside competitors must get much clearer about which customers to serve and how to serve them better than those outsiders – as with Main Street merchants contending with Walmart or any retailer facing Amazon’s direct delivery. Start by thinking about audiences not as a single undifferentiated group (“the public”) but rather as a series of audience segments, each with differing needs, interests and problems that your news enterprise can serve well with your local perspective.
Metro newsrooms can’t compete with Facebook or Google on the scale of their virtual networks or their myriad knowledge of the transactional links within those networks. But your newsrooms can use your deeper understanding of local audiences’ needs, interests and problems to solve to build loyal, more connected networks of audiences within your market. Doing this, though, requires stepping back and reversing the usual flow of newsroom thought and practice.
c) Thinking audience first, always and in all ways
It’s traditional for newsrooms to organize around subject areas as embodied in desks and beats. Journalists figure out “what’s the story” within the boundaries of those subject matter areas. Only then, perhaps, do journalists give thought to audiences for the story at hand.
This pattern needs to be flipped:
- Think audiences first – who are the segments of people and enterprises in your community that your newsroom can best serve and “own” and what are their needs, interests and problems?
- Then think about content and experiences for those audiences – what news, information and opportunities for connections can your newsroom provide that meet and serve audience needs, interests and problems?
Audience first is not just a catchphrase. It is a fundamental shift in a newsroom’s orientation and mindset that changes everything from the conversations in daily meetings to the design of workflows to the roles and skills that are most valued to the tools and technology required.
Audience first is also a required, mandatory change imposed by digital media realities. It is Table Stakes – without it, your news enterprise cannot be ‘in the game.’ Equally important though is this: putting audiences first not only gets you into the game but also far better positions your newsroom to provide more effective journalism whose relevance and value better serves the needs, interests and problems of target audiences. In other words, audience first is essential to fulfilling your journalistic mission.