Focusing on audience can be a culture change for news media

Reporters know their audiences, or so they say. Everyone has a picture of the ideal reader or user in mind. But for the most part, that picture has been based on little information and gut instinct.

In the past, print newspapers had little to go on to create a good reader profile. A subscription newspaper would have some demographic information, supplemented by reader surveys. For newsstand sales, there was often no information at all.

Information about audience was largely the realm of the business departments anyway. The newsroom’s idea of audience was largely built on experience, opinions, anecdotes, letters to the editor and single conversations. And that was okay, since the newsroom’s job was to cover the stories of importance, as determined by professionals; if the content was good, the audience would come.

There is nothing wrong with gut instinct, but that obviously is no longer enough as the main source for decision making, not when audience revenue is crucial to survival as advertising revenues diminish.  

Thankfully, the breadth and depth of data about audiences in the digital world allow deeper analysis and insights that can be leveraged to better meet audiences needs. 

However, building a data-informed, audience-first newsroom takes more than just having the data at hand. It takes a very different way of thinking.

Most newsrooms are content-led, meaning they focus on thinking about, writing and producing stories day after day. Thinking about the audience, about their needs, desires and ambitions, often plays a secondary role. 

To become truly audience-centric requires using the data to really understand the audience, and bring it to the forefront, where journalists are thinking about their stories in terms of audience instead of just the story for the story’s sake.  It also means thinking about multiple audiences, not a single homogenous group, with very different profiles that influence how stories are presented, what language or style is used, and what platforms are prioritized. 

That represents an enormous cultural change. Even if the newsroom embraces the need for bringing audience data into its work, journalists often don’t understand what they’re supposed to do with the information. They need management, guidance and direction or they’re simply going to revert to their former way of doing things.

There are three essential areas where management can act to ensure that audience data is incorporated into newsroom decision making and used effectively.

The first is to communicate the importance of the proposed changes in newsroom orientation to incorporate audience data and insights, so that everyone has a basic, but solid understanding of their audiences, and what the company is trying to achieve. The message has to come from the top; if the commitment to change is less than complete, the changes won’t be sustained.

One PowerPoint presentation won’t be sufficient – an ongoing communication plan that anticipates questions and challenges to the strategy is needed. Nor should the presentations be too much of a sales pitch – journalists react badly if they think they are being manipulated and led to conclusions. A transparent and plausible presentation of the data and analysis, and the benefits of incorporating audience into editorial thinking, is the right approach. Your people are smart and they will reach their own conclusions.

In fact, most journalists are desperate for this kind of information, and for help about how to use it to improve their work. Though there might be some skepticism – there often is with any type of change – most staff members are aware of the need for new approaches and will welcome it. It will provide their stories with greater impact, and who wouldn’t want that?

The second element is training. Some companies are making it mandatory, requiring all personnel across the organization to undergo a half-day or so of workshop about audience data and how it can help the journalistic work. These are practical demonstrations that show the variety of data collected, the sources, and – most importantly – how it can be incorporated into day to day story conception and execution.

Making it mandatory, and having the entire editorial top management attend an entire session, are keys to success; it again demonstrates the deep level of commitment to the change.

The third element is helping journalists and editors to make the data useful in their work through the creation of a new team of specialists who can work directly on the big stories and, more importantly, work with everyone to ensure that audience data is incorporated into the story process. This team can be thought of as in-house consultants on the use of audience data.

Unlike the research teams that collect and analyze the data, these specialists should be made up of journalists who are comfortable with data and understand how best to incorporate it to increase reach and impact. Like medical writers who “translate” doctors’ language for a general audience, these journalists serve as a liaison between the researchers and the newsroom to ensure the audience data is presented in a way to be most useful.

Some journalists will seek out help, but its best to be proactive and provide guidance and insight on how audience data can used. Getting journalists to think about audience and use the data won’t become second nature without consistent attention. Making it easy to use through consultation with experts will help the transition go smoothly.

A clear management decision to create these specialist teams is another demonstration of commitment. An audience-centric approach doesn’t happen by itself. ♦︎