Target audiences: Assessing the gaps in your newsroomDouglas K. Smith, Quentin Hope, Tim Griggs, Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative,
Being audience driven shifts how you make and implement choices – not only to find sustainable paths forward but also to fulfill your historically critical mission of public service. Audience first approaches do not in any way diminish that mission, which is essential to continue. Why? Because serving ‘the public’ is at once broader and more general than identifying and responding to the needs, interests and problems of target audiences.
Take the following quiz for a quick read on where your efforts stand vis a vis this Table Stake. The statements in this assessment reflect observed practices in newsrooms that mostly continue to provide general news for general audiences, even if many practices have changed and more of the published content is locally focused in response to the rise of digital media.
Please note: these statements are phrased so that a ‘yes’ answer indicates your efforts have gaps – that is, fall short of what is required. And, the more yesses, the more gaps you face.
It is worth having many folks take these quizzes, including people in the newsroom as well as from technology, marketing, sales, HR and finance. Compare and discuss your respective responses for where you have agreement or not. Use these discussions to identify and highlight the most significant gaps you face and what steps you might take to close those gaps.
Take the quiz:
Why these gaps exist
“The public” and the “public interest” are undifferentiated terms. This Table Stake is about differentiation. It requires you and your colleagues to define and select target audiences, identify and understand the needs, interests and problems of those audiences, and then figure out how best to serve them.
A range of root causes explains the gaps between serving a generalized, undifferentiated ‘public’ versus differentiated, target audiences, including:
Traditions and habits related to ‘getting the story’ and ‘what’s the story?’
Journalists’ best traditions revolve around discovering and getting the story within newsworthy occurrences (“what’s the story?”). The journalistic drive and competitive impulse is to get scoops and be on top of stories as they occur. These are what the best journalists are best at. Relatively fewer traditions and habits link to understanding the daily lives and needs of specific audiences – of putting audiences first.
The daily/hourly pressures to produce content
Your newsroom produces and publishes content. The most immediate concerns are how to fill tomorrow’s space in print or refresh digital content for noon hour check-ins and so forth. This means it is natural to think in terms of content and having the audience be just what you hope will follow. It takes time and a change in mindset and focus to think about audiences first amid the daily grind of the newsroom.
Legacy habits make it easier to start than stop efforts
Monopolistic and oligopolistic market power produced hugely profitable metro, local and regional news enterprises that, in turn, fostered newsroom choices about what to do that were often free of economic and resource tradeoffs. “Should we do X?” was determined by journalistic value – not cost. Yet, when digital disruption forced metro, local and regional news enterprises to cut costs, the response focused mostly on head count and not on work. “Tighten our belts” led to fewer folks in the newsroom doing pretty much the same amount of work. The pattern became ‘doing more with less’ as opposed to ‘doing less with less’ – that is, making choices about what to stop doing. Indeed, all four metros in Table Stakes shared how difficult – yet essential – it was for them to stop doing things. And this trap compounds the adverse effects of daily and hourly content production just mentioned above.
The security and convenience of reliable story sources
Regularly covering local meetings guarantees you’ll have stories as well as ready and known sources to question and quote. Established meeting schedules also provide a convenient way to plan your coverage calendar. But, this sort of coverage relates more to the institutions that hold the meetings as opposed to audience interests and needs that might – or might not – pertain to such meetings.
There is, of course, a small, target audience for such coverage – the officials in the meeting and being interviewed. Those officials might be important to you and your journalistic mission – for example, if your news enterprise seeks to help shape and set the local agenda and narrative of public action. Still, your newsroom must weigh the value you deliver with this coverage (and how you monetize that value) in an era of shrinking resources, intensified competition, and alternative, cheaper ways of providing readers’ content (e.g. aggregating meeting minutes instead of reporting on those minutes).
Assumptions about knowing what’s important to, and needed by, audiences
Understandably, the subject matter knowledge and experience that journalists develop can mean folks in newsrooms confidently believe they know best what should be covered and what is in the public interest. “We know what to cover” and “we know best,” though, can also lead to one-way instead of two-way journalism – to ‘telling’ audiences instead of both listening and telling. These habits can be subtle ones. For example, journalists who ‘know best’ might trap themselves into believing they are already audience focused – or, if pushed, might contend an audience-first approach is pandering to the audience in ways that distract from what those audiences ought to read or see or hear (often this is characterized as making audiences “eat spinach”).
Concerns that audience focus diminishes public value and public service
Some widespread audience-building tactics among digital publishers – e.g. click baiting – tarnish notions of public service and public value. Arguably, though, click-bait practices actually reflect a content-first –– not audience-first approach – because it focuses on whatever content is most likely to catch the eye and distract the interest of whatever collection of individuals pass by in the moment. When this happens, audiences remain ill defined in favor of what works in drawing clicks (cats, puppies and, as one Table Stakes participant said, ‘scantily clad women’). Little to no attention is paid to understanding the needs, interests and problems of a particular audience, or building engagement or loyalty with that audience.
Thinking all digital audience traffic is the same
Too many newsrooms only distinguish print versus digital. When this happens, newsrooms are prone to thinking “a unique is a unique,”, “a page view is a page view,”, and that what particular kinds of audiences and traffic get built does not matter as long as traffic grows. Relentless traffic growth trumps engagement and loyalty – an approach even more likely within advertising heavy business models. In comparison, too little attention is paid to the value of engaged, loyal local audiences for subscription income, higher value advertising, sponsorship, events, and other revenue sources.