Photo by Edwin van Buuringen on Flickr, Creative Commons, some rights reserved.

Designing news for audience behavior

Six reasons to put users/readers/customers/audience/community first.

[Revised Feb. 11, 2017]

  1. The attention competition.
    Competition for public attention is fierce. If journalists don’t design a tolerable experience of news for readers/viewers, those readers/viewers will quickly move on to another alert/video/message from the constantly updating screens that define their lives. Meaning: The era of publishing news content on slow loading, pop-up riddled, ad-filled lists of headlines with small and large auto-playing distractor windows is done. Over. And 30-minute newscasts filled with ads for erectile dysfunction and local car dealers won’t be far behind.
  2. The rise of the audience, the fall of the advertiser.
    When advertisers paid the media bills, it made sense to design news products for advertisers. Of course display ads should get prime locations and 30-second commercials should air before every important news story. But now, pleasing the customer means paying attention to the experience of readers/viewers/community members. If people find the cost of attending news to be too high (slow/confusing/boring/out-of-touch) they will put their resources elsewhere.
  3. Newsroom habits die hard.
    Newsrooms are full of people who think of their craft as a love of words and text, concise language and long mood-setting shots. Audiences are full of people who love to thumb through screens of beautiful images, plug in a podcast on a run, check the weather on an app, watch videos on Facebook and read headlines on the phone. Journalists need to keep designing for these people, because the inertia in newsrooms is to create news that hasn’t changed all that much in a very long time. We need more kinds of media to tell stories in more creative ways. Journalists need to diversify what they create and how they share so journalism can be more fun to make as well as engage with.
  4. The imperative to “build for needs, not audiences” [Credit to GOV.UK]
    Identifying needs gets journalists much closer to creating inclusive, meaningful journalism than assuming some vague mass audiences defined by psychographics. Do newsrooms deliver the news they think distracted consumers want to snack on? Or news driven by an intimate knowledge of the pain points in people’s everyday lives? What are the needs of the people journalists are actually working for? Until journalists can answer these questions with some authenticity, it will be difficult to solve the business problems of journalism.

5. Journalistic judgment isn’t normal judgment.
Journalists repeatedly cover disasters, accidents, crime, tragedy, corruption and scandal with great sincerity. They rip politicians, corporations, school boards, law enforcement and our next door neighbors with fierce honesty and the best intentions of holding power to account. They aren’t as reliable when it comes to finding solutions, supporting fledgling attempts at improvement and building consensus. It’s not that people want or need good news all the time — but a constant narrative of fear, alarm and cynical scrutiny extracts a high cost for society. It polarizes, divides and depresses.

The desire for a healthy mix of knowing what’s working and not working, what’s on fire and what’s going well, with perspective and scale and context and order is an enormous need that journalism is failing to address. Empathizing with people and helping them manage the flood of disconnected bits of information in a way that affirms possibility and engagement should be a goal in every newsroom. Otherwise, impossibility and disengagement will doom all of us.

Photo by Leslie Seaton, Flickr, some rights reserved.

6. To live democracy.
Journalists are a type of super-citizen. They pay close attention to public affairs and bear witness to what leaders are saying and doing. What they struggle with is translating this journalistic club of hyper-citizens into a movement that empowers other citizens. This gets complicated, but there’s clearly a problem between delivering information and receiving it that has disempowered a lot of people. What are journalists doing well to strengthen a community? Where are they making problems worse?

The era of mass audiences is over for all but the largest, global news organizations. Many journalists are fighting for survival by forging new relationships with networks of people across their communities. They can’t afford to treat readers/viewers/members as faceless audiences willing to buy whatever pays to be sold, as spectators in a barely-democratic society. In an era marked by a transition from journalism-as-product to journalism-as-service, understanding who and what journalists are serving becomes an imperative question of our time. Designing journalism for fellow citizens is not an afterthought in this journalistic universe.

P.S. Nieman Lab published a story Feb. 17: Lots of young adults got election news from big national newspapers (but still avoided local sources) supporting the value of strong user experience, as demonstrated by the number of young people who read large national papers but avoid local ones.

Thank you to André and the entire Carnival of Journalism community for prompting this post. Our topic this month: Designing for audience behavior…Regardless of how we present our stories to our audiences — online, on-air, or in print — do we truly take them into consideration?