Entry points, on-ramps, and waypoints: How KPCC/LAist is trying to help Angelenos engage with their complex city

Our relevance and sustainability is intimately connected to how many people are active in public life and therefore seeking information about our city. To grow our audience (and audience revenue), we need to understand what prompts people to participate in the first place and how our journalism can equip them to do that.

Legacy broadcast operations like KPCC traditionally put out a signal and whoever it reached, we defined as our audience. We didn’t have to think about segmenting our audience because everyone in range of our tower on top of Mount Wilson got the same product.

In a digital environment, you quickly become aware of how many people you’re not reaching, and that it isn’t actually feasible to serve everyone. You need to make choices about who you are trying to reach and how you’re going to reach them. — Kristen Muller, Chief Content Officer

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about and observing how different newsrooms approach audience segmentation.

There’s the main Google News Consumer Insight categories: casual reader, loyal reader, brand lover. It’s the most common approach, but here’s the hitch: If we understand and segment people based just on their news consumption habits, we’re focusing on a tiny fraction of how they spend their day. That’s missing innumerable opportunities to weave ourselves into our readers and listeners’ lives.

Some newsrooms segment based on demographics (particularly race or income) or geography (specifically zip codes). This approach encourages journalists to design and deliver their work in ways that accentuate people’s differences. And how many newsrooms can realistically maintain multiple niche news products?

I have a different pitch: If our local news mission is to connect communities, shouldn’t we find a way to segment and serve our audiences that isn’t primarily based on their race, income, or zip code? In other words, can we find a way to segment and serve them that doesn’t accentuate divides?

Leo Gomez, a strategic creative consultant who works with our newsroom, our podcast unit, and our marketing department, immediately embraced our research when we shared the results.

“Demographic segmentation is in some respects reductionist,” Leo said to me. “Of course race and ethnicity influence how you interact with your city, but it’s not the only thing that defines that interaction. It’s not the whole story. Two people from different backgrounds can share the same needs, so understanding all the layers and the nuanced ways people engage with their communities and each other is important, and demands knowing way more than which age group someone is part of, or where they were born.”

And it’s not just about existing audiences. Growing your local news audience (and audience revenue) is intimately connected to growing the number of people who participate in public life and need to be informed about the community in which they live. And changing how we approach segmentation can help us do the type of journalism that accomplishes that.

I reached out to KPCC/LAist with the idea (I was a consultant at the time and then joined the staff once this work was underway) because the newsroom already had significant experience with human-centered design research. However, that work had been focused either on specific moments, like the census, or on specific beats, such as early childhood. Those insights didn’t easily transfer to daily news decisions or other beats. The entire newsroom needed qualitative and actionable insights into their potential audiences.

How to get started? For the purpose of this research, we loosely defined public life as engaging in the city outside your residence, family unit, and day job. Why public life and not civic life? Because civic life is too narrow. It fails to capture all the tiny acts of public participation that build a feeling of community: organizing a neighborhood block party, shopping at the farmers market, visiting a museum, or starting a neighborhood WhatsApp group. If we only studied civic participation, we would still end up focused on a very narrow slice of the city.

An important caveat before we go any further: While these insights might feel like they can be wholly transferred to your own newsroom, they are fairly specific to the sprawl and complexity of Los Angeles and the way that this can excite people one week and bewilder or overwhelm them the next week.

We encourage anyone inspired by this post to still do the research in their own market, rather than try to copy and paste these insights. That includes identifying your own challenge and the overarching research questions that will help you address that.

We’re providing a copy of our interview questions at the end that might help with your own interview script.

What we did

Guided by design consultant Tran Ha, we identified three overarching questions as we began scoping out our research:

  • How do Angelenos interact with their community?
  • How do Angelenos access and use local information?
  • What are Angelenos’ personal motivations, and how does that intersect with Los Angeles more broadly?

From there, we identified the dimensions across which we would recruit participants. When you’re recruiting for human-centered design research, you tend to focus on extreme experiences and inflection points. Here’s where we landed:

  • Life stage: Those inflection points at which your needs might change dramatically, such as holding your first professional job, buying a home, or parenting a child entering grade school
  • Length of relationship with L.A.: A spectrum from multigenerational Angelenos to people who had lived in L.A. for less than two years, weighting a bit more toward each of those two extremes
  • Role in the community: A spectrum from not engaged in the city at all to extremely engaged in the city. We also factored in their altitude from people working at the grassroots level all the way up to citywide decision makers

Once that work was done, we started recruiting people, working to make sure participants reflected the diversity of Southern California. Here’s where the vast community network cultivated by KPCC/LAist’s engagement team and community advisory board played a key role.

Members of the community engagement team were able to dig into the databases we’ve built over the last several years to identify people who met one or more of the target perspectives. Many of these contacts were also willing to reach into their respective networks and identify potential participants. For some of the more specific-to-L.A. perspectives like philanthropist or entertainment industry executive, we were also able to turn to our board of trustees and community advisory board for their participation and suggestions.

When we were about two-thirds of the way through recruitment, we took a look at the neighborhoods, languages, and transportation choices of our selected participants. It was a gut check to identify if there were specific geographies, income levels, or immigrant communities absent from our participant pool. We then prioritized those experiences as we recruited the final few participants. In all, we interviewed 24 Angelenos, from Hollywood executives to gig workers, from South Bay to the San Gabriel Valley.

Two editors and four reporters conducted the interviews, after receiving training from Tran. They were supported by Ariel and members of the engagement team.

What we found

L.A.’s distinctive, diverse neighborhoods are at the root of a resident’s experience and an important lens and grounding through which people engage and understand the area.

But L.A.’s sprawl strains connection and comprehension; the area’s geographic and systems complexity can feel overwhelming to even long-time residents. Just delivering the news is not enough in this environment.

Angelenos need entry points, on-ramps, and waypoints to engage with and get the most out of this complex, overwhelming, but also rich and diverse region. They have different information needs based on the context in which they’re operating and what they’re trying to achieve, or what “mode” they’re in. The Modes that make up this framework — Discover, Navigate, Connect, Change — emerged as the most resonant needs across different age groups, ethnicities, perspectives, and experiences.

A black and white image of an iceberg. Above the surface is the word “inform.” Below the surface are the words, “discover”, “connect”, “navigate,” and “change.”
Developed by Tran Ha/Tiny Collaborative for KPCC/LAist

We went into the research expecting to emerge with a set of archetypes. But what Tran helped us understand is that archetypes weren’t dynamic enough for this research focus. Even in the course of an hour-long interview, let alone in their daily lives, the participants’ needs shifted based on what they were thinking about or trying to accomplish. We needed a way of segmenting Angelenos that was dynamic. That’s what the Modes allow.

Discover

Driven by: Curiosity

In this mode, residents are seeking the new and novel where they live — could be information and/or experiences that help them explore, pique their interest in or satiate their curiosity about L.A. They are open to serendipity and surprises. Though this mode may feel lighter compared to the others, it shouldn’t be limited to just entertainment and lifestyle content. There are also opportunities to introduce residents to facets of L.A.’s distinctive people, diverse neighborhoods, and aspects of the city that have historical significance.

How might we spark residents’ ongoing curiosity and exploration of L.A.?

In their own words:

“I’m discovering parts of L.A. that I drive by all the time. … I’m just starting to understand the neighborhoods and what they have to offer.”

Connect

Driven by: Isolation

The density and sprawl of L.A. can be a barrier to social connections and make it difficult for residents to find where they fit. This is especially true for newcomers and those who have recently moved neighborhoods or experienced life changes. In this mode, residents are looking for meaningful interactions, to meet fellow travelers, and to find community where they are.

How might we help residents connect with others who reflect and validate their experiences?

In their own words:

“My first mommy friend I met in the wild was at Target.”

Navigate

Driven by: Confusion

In this mode, residents are seeking simplicity, clarity or guidance on something complex. They are trying to achieve a specific objective but are not sure how to best do it: This could include accessing essential information, services or resources, or understanding and solving a problem that affects their daily lives, their livelihoods or their future. Many don’t have the time, capacity, know-how or connections to find what they need.

How might we help residents make L.A.’s complex systems work for them?

In their own words:

“You don’t know what you don’t know, and there’s nobody to show you.”

Change

Driven by: Dissatisfaction or concern

Residents in this mode are looking for ways to do their part in contributing to positive change on issues that feel important to them. They want to make a meaningful difference, but might be lacking the information, connections or impetus to get started. Some are seeking to change themselves and their behaviors (e.g., living a more climate-friendly lifestyle) while others are seeking to make change in society.

How might we help residents feel better equipped to affect change, whether large or small, where they live?

In their own words:

“It’s about continuing to interrogate our systems. …I’m trying to provide opportunities for my students to be educated and hopefully … give them choices that maybe their parents don’t have.”

There’s more to say on each of the Modes’ audience needs and opportunities we see in them; reach out to me at azirulnick@scpr.org if you want to go deeper.

How we’re applying this

We’ve shared this research with colleagues — and gathered their insights — through small group sessions and one-on-one conversations. Their enthusiasm accelerated the process of incorporating the Modes into various aspects of our journalism.

It’s always easier to incorporate new ways of thinking into a new product or team than an existing one. Fortunately, we concluded the research as our new daily short-form podcast and accompanying newsletter, How to L.A., were beginning to take shape. When we introduced the Modes to executive producer Megan Larson and podcast host Brian De Los Santos, they jumped on them as the foundation for the show.

“The Modes made so much sense from the beginning. They not only provided us with a clear mission for what this project would do each day, but they also help us frame each idea we come up with,” Megan said. “In every meeting we ask ourselves, ‘How are we helping our audience discover or navigate something with this story? How are we helping them connect to the city, or make change happen? You’ll notice, too, that the Modes often end up in our episode titles or newsletter headlines.”

You can hear and read this in action on the “How to Make LA Greener” episode. We follow how one group and one community is trying to navigate the effects of extreme heat and pollution by planting more trees and creating park space in their neighborhood. It set up the challenge and backed up the action taken — the change — with research about why the approach works. This podcast episode, LAist.com post, and newsletter feature all ran during a record-setting heatwave in L.A. so it was particularly relevant in that moment, and gave people a sense that there was something they could do.

“The Modes offer perspective on how we are including audiences or experts we traditionally hadn’t reached before,” Brian added. “We are reporting in neighborhoods knowing we aren’t the experts, so we lean on residents to guide us and explore them with us. Folks have really tapped into the social content that helps them discover neighborhoods or connects people to an issue — like the heat in Pacoima — or a community.”

Caitlin Hernández also launched their new L.A. Explained beat around the four modes. They’ve found the insights from the “Navigate” and “Discover” modes to be key in shaping what their explainers cover and how the information is presented.

Several reporters and editors also began experimenting with applying the Modes to our more standard formats and products almost immediately — including using our “Table of Contents” functionality to create an easily scannable preview of what the story will cover.

The education team was in the midst of reporting out an ambitious series on dyslexia when we introduced the Modes into the newsroom. Education editor Ross Brenneman saw the Modes as an opportunity to help the stories do more than just deliver information.

For the series launch story, Ross wanted to help people navigate the complexities of dyslexia. From the research, he knew they needed support utilizing essential information, services, and resources, as well as ways to seek additional help and advice. So the team used the table of contents feature to make it easier for readers to jump to the info they most needed. They also included a resources box categorized by the type of support needed and a glossary of important terms to understand.

While reporting the series, the team heard that being dyslexic can be very isolating. So Ross’s secondary goal was to help people with dyslexia feel connected to others. They used infoboxes to feature several personal stories throughout the piece. (The stories had been collected via a stakeholder email blast a couple weeks before. That blast prompted more than 250 responses.)

These are just a few early examples. Our daily news editors also say they see the Modes as a way to extend the life of stories, especially breaking news stories. When the news first breaks, our goal will always be to deliver accurate information as quickly as possible, but the Modes give us pointers on how to approach the story on Days 2, 3, and 4. It’s a filter for understanding what people’s information needs might be at that moment.

The events team has zeroed in on how in-person and virtual events can better serve Angelenos in connect mode. We’re working with director of product Brandon Cox to think about the best way to tag and measure the success of each story that serves one of the Modes.

But it’s still early days, and we don’t want to declare victory because of a few strong examples. We’re just getting started and hope we’ll have more to share about applying the Modes in a few months.

Additional reading

We’re not the only ones thinking about ways that we can adjust our approaches to our journalism in order to better meet audience needs. Here are some recommended reads if you want to learn more:

Ways to further this work

Does your organization want to financially support work like this? Email grants@scpr.org.

Empower more community-focused journalism by becoming an LAist member today at LAist.com/join.

Interview guide

Some of these questions came from or were inspired by an interview guide originally developed by WhereBy.Us, where I previously worked. That full interview guide is included in LION Publishers’ Startups Playbook.

Personal (No more than 10 min)

  • Tell me your first name, how old you are, and a little bit about yourself and your family.
  • Tell me a little bit about your neighborhood/community. How did you come to live in this area?
  • What kind of work do you do? OR What kind of work are you interested in?
  • What do you do for fun?

Living in Los Angeles (25 min)

  • How long have you lived in Los Angeles?
  • If they grew up here:
  • What was it like when you were growing up?
  • Did you expect to stay or come back?
  • How did you make a decision to leave or return?
  • What’s different now from when you grew up?
  • If they moved here:
  • Why did you come to Los Angeles?
  • What were your first 6 months like?
  • How did you find your way around?
  • How did you find friends?

Reflecting on Los Angeles

  • Think about a time when you thought, “I really love living here.” What were you doing in that moment?
  • What’s something you want to know more about in Los Angeles? Why?
  • Take me through your day yesterday from the time you woke up until you went to sleep. It’s ok if yesterday wasn’t a typical day. We’re particularly interested in the parts of the day when you were interacting with people and places outside your house.
  • Take me through the past weekend, from Friday evening to Sunday evening.
  • How do you find out about important issues in Los Angeles?
  • Politics, civic things, nonprofits, that sort of stuff?
  • Who do you spend your free time with? How did you meet them? What brought you together? (Alt phrasing — Have you found “your people” in LA? Where did you meet them? What are they like?)
  • Are there types of people you would like to meet who you haven’t met yet?
  • What’s challenging about living here?
  • Tell us about a time that you were really frustrated with life in LA. What was happening that made you feel that way? Did you feel like there was anything you could do about it?
  • Have you ever advocated for something locally? What was it, and what prompted you to get involved more deeply in the issue?
  • How do you keep up with what’s happening in LA and the things that are important to you?

Additional questions

  • Fill this in with questions relevant to your interview subject.

Conclusion

  • What haven’t we asked you about that we should have?

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Ariel Zirulnick

Senior Editor forCommunity Engagement at KPCC/LAist. Before: Membership Puzzle Project, The New Tropic, freelance journo in Kenya.