Before moving forward with any piece of journalism, it's imperative for journalists to put the audience first. By tailoring the news to the intended audience, community engagement becomes much simpler, almost guaranteeing readership and reaction.
The key to audience engagement is treating journalism as a public service, said Kelsey Proud, engagement editor at St. Louis Public Radio, during a recent webinar hosted by the NPR editorial training team.
“How can we serve our neighbors and our world? By involving them in the process from start to finish; by focusing on them,” Proud explained. “We have to know who they are, what they value, and how they consume information. And we have to demonstrate that we know these things by bringing the stories to them where they are.”
Proud listed seven questions all journalists should ask themselves at the start of any news story to ensure their work will engage the intended audience:
1. What is the specific need you’re trying to fill or question you’re trying to answer?
Every news story should fulfill a need or answer a question present in the community, Proud said. If the story will do neither, it’s not worth pursuing. Ideally, the answer to this first question should be summed up in just one sentence, so you can streamline your writing to meet a niche audience’s needs and make it easier to describe your project to others.
“You have to be surgical about who you’re trying to reach and what you’re trying to cover,” Proud explained. “There are no real bonus points anymore for saying ‘We got a broad brushstroke of what’s happening with this story’; do something distinctive, cover the news in a way that gives a different take on something.”
2. To whom is this topic important?
When directing the news at any audience, it’s essential to consider who will comprise this audience. Your story might matter to local school teachers, or it could cover an important topic for senior citizens.
“There may be several groups you identify here, but your journalism should be laser-focused on serving one especially well,” she said. “If you do that really well, it will pay off in dividends because they will share among others they know who may be interested in what you’re doing.”
3. Why is the topic important to the targeted community? How do you know?
In addition to identifying your target audience, you want to be sure the audience will care about your story. Don’t assume you know the answer to this question; ask members of the community you’re targeting and seek their feedback, Proud said.
“In trying to answer this question, you might go down a path that leads you to a more interesting story, a more interesting direction than you originally considered,” she said. “This really shows people you’re plugged in and are listening to their thoughts and concerns.”
4. How do the people who need this information or are affected by this topic consume information?
Another key consideration journalists must make — especially in the 21st century — is the ways in which the target audience receives and consumes their information. If you’re targeting an audience that primarily gets its news in print, it would be futile to try and promote your project on the web, and vice versa.
“You can’t push social media on a group that isn’t using it — not every tool is suited to every group,” Proud said. “You have to think about this from the very beginning, or else your editorial efforts won’t resonate with people. Why do it if no one will see it?”
5. How should the journalism be reported, presented, published and/or broadcast?
This question ties in with the question before. Presenting your work in a way that’s easy for your audience to access is important, but so is presenting your work in a way that works for your news organization, Proud said.
“What tools does your organization already have that can be used to create journalism that will best serve them?” she said. “Making sure that you are pursuing something that not only makes sense for the reader, but also for you, is so important.”
6. How will the target group know about the project?
With any piece of journalism, the project will be virtually worthless if your audience doesn’t know it exists.
“In your newsrooms, how many times have you had a story you thought was great and spent a lot of time on, and people in your community had no idea you did it?” Proud said. “It all depends on how the particular group you’re serving consumes information. The job is to figure out what they need and communicate it in that way, and it will pay off in dividends.”
7. How will we know if we are successful? How will we follow up?
Ultimately, the key to measuring the success of a story is a combination of both qualitative and quantitative measures, Proud stressed.
“Numbers tell a story and should be used to make decisions, but not without anecdotes and other types of information,” she said. “Otherwise, you won’t have a complete, professional understanding of the audience’s response to your project. Sometimes, we put out a piece of journalism without a good Google Analytics performance, but it may have really helped someone.”
Image CC-licensed on Flickr via Jens Schott Knudsen.