For decades now, journalism has had a tradition of being largely disconnected from its audience. In pursuit of objective truth and fearful of accusations of favoring one side over another, we eschewed everything but the impersonal, institutional voice.
And we didn’t talk much to the people we ostensibly served.
That disembodied-voice strategy only worked — at least financially — for one reason: Journalism wasn’t paying most of the tab. We made money by selling massive audiences to advertisers, and that revenue went to support newsrooms. But the truth is we were in the distribution business.
While that business model — like the old man in Monty Python and The Holy Grail — isn’t quite dead yet, it’s approaching its end.
Most consumers will be unlikely to pay for something emotionally inaccessible. There is a limit to how many publications a consumer will be willing to pay for, and if you want to be one of them, you’ll need to either:
- Give people content so indispensable they cannot live without.
- Make them feel connected to something so deeply that they want help keep it alive.
Most news organizations can’t pass the first test. Yes, local news sites often cover stories no one else does, but they are usually not indispensable. Local television, for example, tends to focus on extraordinary events (murders, shootings, fires, etc.). That worked when the web was driven by page views and advertising. But as we move toward a loyalty model where consumers foot the bill, local TV sites will need to shift from the extraordinary to the ordinary.
The modern consumer demands utility over ubiquity. They don’t care about the car crash of the day, they want to know where to point their cars to find a good burger. They care about the radar maps of an approaching hurricane, but they also want to know where they can buy sandbags. They are concerned about the lead problem in their schools, but they really want to know whether there’s lead at their kid’s school.
In my last column, I listed seven ways to better connect with readers. Here, I want to provide some real-life examples. One caveat: Engaging with readers only matters if you create value for everyone. Comment threads populated by trolls and ignored by newsrooms help no one. Neither does asking consumers to contribute photos that go into a black hole. Those actually work against the goal of building loyalty.
To take full advantage of what consumers can bring to the table, we need to do five things:
- Talk to them
- Listen to them
- Meet with them
- Delight them
- Partner with them
Talk to them
This is the simplest to put into action, and it requires nothing but adding a personal tone into your work. Here’s a simple example: On Sept. 1, a slew of new laws went into effect in Texas. ABC13 in Houston went with the headline, “New Texas laws going into effect on Sept. 1 include beer-to-go.” Accurate. But look at what the Texas Tribune went with: “820 new Texas laws go into effect in September. Here are some that might affect you.” The use of the word “you” makes a huge difference, and the headline makes clear that the Tribune staff curated this list with the consumer in mind.
Digital startups have been taking advantage of this opportunity for years. Legacy brands need to start doing more of this — and soon. An easy way to start is finding two to three stories a day where you can insert the words “you” or “we” or “us.” It’s the first step in becoming less formal.
Listen to them
This is also a relatively easy lift for the willing. Listening simply means observing what your audience is talking about and finding stories in those discussions. For example, the Cronkite School at Arizona State University published a piece on how newsrooms can best use Reddit. When we launched Billy Penn in 2013, we kept a close eye on Reddit’s Philadelphia page, and it’s there we found posts that led to stories about dumpster pools and jimmies art.
Listening simply means using Reddit, Facebook and Twitter as devices for learning rather than broadcasting. There are stories on those platforms waiting to be told. Find them before someone else does.
Meet with them
If you’re serious about deepening the relationship with your readers, nothing beats meeting them in person. When I was still running Billy Penn, The Incline and Denverite, we knew one of the two most dependable precursors for people to become members was attending an event (the other was signing up for our daily newsletters).
The key, of course, is to not have boring events. At Spirited Media, we did beer tastings, trivia nights, volunteer fairs and ghost tours but not a single event in a hotel ballroom with a rubber chicken dinner. The events were designed to allow for as much socializing as possible, so that our readers met not only our staff, but other readers. These events were inexpensive to hold but invaluable in building loyalty.
I’ve always felt one of legacy journalism’s failings has been its inability to effectively mirror the natural range of human emotion. We’re good at delivering outrage, sadness and anger. But we’ve never been particularly good at delivering laughter or tears of joy – or even a little civic pride.
This doesn’t mean taking sides in politics or on sensitive local issues. What it means is reminding people whenever possible that you are their neighbors. I do some consulting work for Graham Media Group, and constantly make this point. So when I saw that WDIV in Detroit — a Graham property — tweeted this, I was proud.
There’s nothing wrong with taking shots at Ohio when you’re in Michigan. First, no one takes it that seriously. Second, it’s a wonderful way to build a following by taking the only side you can take in that dispute: that of the home team. It’s funny, it’s parochial and it works, all without chipping away at the journalistic reputation of the site.
Partner with them
Consumers also have things to offer you if you’re willing to engage. And some companies have found they can monetize that engagement. Advance is experimenting with a product called Subtext, where, consumers become part of a group text around topics of interest. Those who pay $3.99/month also have the opportunity to ask questions or suggest ideas to reporters. Many news organizations use Hearken to solicit reader questions that smart newsrooms use as a tip sheet. In fact, many of the subjects we tackled as part of our Peculiar Pittsburgh series at The Incline came from Hearken.
Also, why not solicit consumer photos for your site or in your e-mail newsletters? Ask readers to use an Instagram hashtag of your choosing, and then grab the best ones and use with credit. Those who submit photos will likely check to see if you used theirs, and if you did, they’ll surely share that with others.
None of these changes require massive technology builds. But they require something even rarer in legacy newsrooms: a willingness to rethink how we do everything. Because our instincts when dealing with readers are often poor.
Here’s a good example: Last month, The Express, The Washington Post’s commuter newspaper, got a lot of virtual back pats on social media for the cover of its final edition before closing.
Yes, it’s clever. And, yes, it doesn’t really matter since the Express was shutting down anyway. But this front page completely missed the point: The Express’ remaining audience wasn’t the people who preferred their stinkin’ phones, those people had already abandoned the Express. That’s why it was closing. This headline instead insulted its remaining loyal readers. Instead, the appropriate final front page should have simply said, “THANK YOU” to those who had stuck with the Express. The fact this final headline was celebrated by so many other journalists was, to me, a sign that we still don’t understand how to succeed in a consumer-driven world.
So let’s be better than that. For the first time in decades, the health of our business and our journalism is aligned. Loyal, committed consumers are at the core of both. We don’t have time to screw this one up. But to avoid it, we’re going to have to change our stinkin’ attitudes.
Jim Brady is CEO of Spirited Media, which operated local news sites, including Billy Penn, before selling them. Previously, he held posts at the Washington Post, Digital First Media and AOL. He writes regularly for RJI.