A resource for news innovators powered by American Press Institute
Complexity: Beginner
Article Complexity Bar Graph

Target audiences: A primer

The proliferation of online news and information sources — and the primacy of online platforms like Meta and Google — have forced newsrooms to reconsider the vague, “general” audiences they once served.

Legacy media historically offered a wide range of content to a wide range of readers, defining their “audience” as anyone who read any part of the full, curated package. Digital publishing atomized that package, however. And digital giants, with their vast troves of user data and sophisticated algorithms, now create individualized media experiences for every person who logs in.

To compete, newsrooms must redefine their concept of “audience” — and then place those audiences at the forefront of their journalistic work. For some organizations, that requires a total inversion of the traditional workflow or a reevaluation of long-time beat structures.

Many beats are organized around broad topics, for instance, which assume a general audience. But to effectively reach readers now, news organizations must understand their “audience” as a series of smaller, distinct segments, each with specific interests and problems the newsroom can address. Which segments in the community boast enough passionate, engaged members to move the newsroom closer to its digital subscription goals? What can the newsroom do well? Where has it devoted resources?

Once an organization has identified target segments, editors and reporters can reimagine coverage that is relevant to their needs. Audience analytics tools are critical here: Newsrooms must embrace data-driven decision-making, setting and tracking concrete goals to guide wider strategy.

When evaluating a story’s success, audience-first reporters and editors don’t ask if a piece got good placement or drew their colleagues’ praise — they check to see how the audience responded. This data-centric approach ensures that newsrooms can respond dynamically to audience needs, abandoning coverage that fails to attract readers and focusing resources on subjects and stories that resonate with them.

This transition can be challenging: Many journalists believe they know their audiences already or are a better judge of newsworthiness than readers are. Newsrooms are often entrenched in workflows and veins of coverage that don’t ultimately serve their audiences.

But by placing readers at the center of their work, newsrooms don’t only boost readership — they also cultivate deeper connections with their communities and further their journalistic mission.