#JCarn: Designing for audience behavior

The Carnival of Journalism is back!

This month’s prompt: 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? Is the topic being reported on truly considered during the newsgathering process? Do we realize we can’t copy what other organizations do just because it’s already been “solved” for us? Can we look at internal reports like the NYT 2020 Report as a template or a bible for tackling how we interact with the communities we serve?

I will briefly answer each of the questions, which are not strictly related to 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?

This question is bulging with potential meanings, and needs a great deal of clarification. I’d venture 99 percent of media practitioners couldn’t answer the question accurately given the way it is presented. Follow-up questions would be required, such as:

Who is our audience?

What part of “them” are we specifying when we ask if we take “them” into consideration: behavior, wants, needs, aspirations, aesthetic preferences, content consumption habits? Preferred consumption method? Demographics?

How much of our audience should we take into consideration per story?

Is “consideration” solely based on factors presented by the audience (i.e., they prefer entertainment news to budget stories), or does “consideration” also include external factors such as how something we’re reporting on affects or might affect those audience members?

Who is the “we” here? The individual journalist? The organization? The editorial staff?

Is the topic being reported on truly considered during the newsgathering process?

I’m actually mystified by this question. In gathering information about a topic, it is something of a given that a journalist will be considering the topic itself. Am I missing something here? Perhaps a concrete example would help clarify where we’re going with this one.

Having said that, I will stipulate that topical consideration during the news gathering process varies greatly for a number of reasons, usually related to constraints of time, resources, deadlines, currency, etc.

Do we realize we can’t copy what other organizations do just because it’s already been “solved” for us?

Yes, I think most journalists do have some sense of this. And, honestly, nothing has been “solved.” There are so many factors influencing the success or failure of each individual news operation that there is no one-size-fits-all key to success in today’s media market. As an example, I’ll give you two really awesome public radio outlets in Illinois. WBEZ-FM is the public radio operation of Chicago. It has given us some awesome news and storytelling endeavors over time, including “This American Life.”

If you scan WBEZ’s daily schedule, you will find that it varies enormously from WILL-AM, the news station of Illinois Public Media, which is situated about 2 hours south in Champaign-Urbana.

You won’t hear in-depth discussion of crop futures or rainfall totals across the midwest on WBEZ, and I wouldn’t expect it. Similarly, WILL won’t spend as much time on the issues facing Chicago. The two have vastly different audiences, and tailor their programming toward those audiences. This actually bounces back up to the overall question presented above.

If WBEZ “solves” its digital pennies problem, it’s almost guaranteed that the package solution won’t work precisely the same for WILL.

Can we look at internal reports like the NYT 2020 Report as a template or a bible for tackling how we interact with the communities we serve?

This is one question that I will answer with an emphatic NO.

I have in my desk a printed copy of the LAST New York Times Innovation Report, put out in 2014. I haven’t had the heart to look back through it and compare it to the latest report, because I honestly think the New York Times is as befuddled as any other major news outlet in today’s information market, they just have glossier reports about their struggles.

The Times is also incredibly bifurcated when it comes to “considering” its audience. To see this, one need only contrast the investigative reporting of its various foreign, national and local desks with the rarified odes to conspicuous consumption and elitism in T Magazine and the Sunday Living section.

So, no, we shouldn’t use someone else’s future-casting as a template, and we damned sure shouldn’t use it as a Bible for any reason.

That said, if we have time amidst all our daily responsibilities actually covering news and serving our communities, then we should perhaps scan such reports for ideas that might fit our own situations. Or perhaps reading such reports might bring to mind reasons why we wouldn’t want to rely on the recommendations of one newspaper situated in the media capital of the western world.