To connect with an audience, put your ego aside and let the story do the work

Design products for the people who use them, not for your newsroom.

On the day I began writing this, I woke up to find a new survey from the American Press Institute that identified one key reason young people pay for news:

“For younger audiences to be willing to pay, they must bond with your mission and purpose.”

What this means is that news organizations have to do their work with the public in mind. Reporting that is irrelevant, stiff and haughty, self-serving or elitist is not going to strike a chord with an audience looking to subscribe to journalists whom they believe in.

Fighting the journalistic ego that leads to these newsroom-centric (rather than audience-centric) trends has long been my goal. That’s why I’m dismayed every time I see or hear something that shows the ego is still there, such as when reporters withhold information from their peers in the same newsroom or when television anchors frame the “we followed this” aspect of a story as nearly equal to the story itself (see the anchor introduction to this package as an example).

This screenshot is dated 2:34 p.m. on May 11, taken on an Apple Watch.

For a real-world illustration of ego at work, take a look at this push notification I received from USA Today.

“He was 8. It didn’t have to end this way. #TheShortList”

The notification contains no name. It doesn’t describe what “it” is or what “this way” is. More than a quarter of the 45 characters in the notification are devoted to “#TheShortList,” which only upon further investigation did I find out is a nightly newsletter from USA Today.

The beauty of push notifications, from the newsroom perspective, is the power they have to drive traffic to stories. In November, The New York Times told Digiday that push notifications drive up to 60 percent of global traffic to any given story. There’s also something to be said about the effect of formerly print-focused publications being able to remind users that they exist throughout the day. I would assume that USA Today had all of this in mind when it sent a push notification that contained no apparently relevant information.

But for the audience, the beauty of a push notification is important news when you need it. Push notifications are distracting, yes, but they’re unobtrusive. They’re bite-sized, and you can see them as they come, interact with them if you wish, or just leave them alone.

So when USA Today sends a push alert that’s only meant to drive newsletter traffic, I wonder: Does any of this serve a story? Does any of this make a positive difference for the public? And perhaps more importantly, does any of this serve the audience?

At a time when journalism is as important as ever but is hobbled by less trust than ever, every little thing matters, because it shapes how the industry is perceived and the degree to which our audiences believe in our mission and purpose.

From left to right: Annie in Facebook Messenger; the Annie app introduction screen, home screen, and chat screen

This semester, we set out to create a news product at USC Annenberg Media that would inspire trust in our audience. We settled on a chatbot, available on Facebook Messenger and as a standalone app, and we named her Annie.

Annie exists because we spoke with our audience and identified what motivates them. We tried to get at why they read what they read, why they trust what they trust and why they know what they know. Annie exists because our audience of college students lives on their phones, is always in a hurry and expects thoughtful design and relevant information at their fingertips.

From the start, Annie was intended to be relatable, not just to seem relatable. She’s meant to be what our audience needs her to be: a friend who respects your time and gives you the news you need when it’s convenient for you.

This seems like a small thing, but it’s a big deal. Think about the ways that ego can get in the way of a story: we write convoluted sentences to show our writing prowess; we construct video story packages to fit into a half-hour news show, not a mobile user’s daily routine; we build workflows around the needs of a legacy print product or show rather than putting the larger internet audience first.

To move away from big journalist egos getting in the way of audience trust, we at the Annenberg Media Center designed what Annie says and the way she says it to be calm, relatable and direct. The story synopses are glanceable. The app lets you direct your own news flow. Annie was designed for an audience, not for a newsroom.

For now, Annie provides breaking news notifications and a regular digest of new stories. We have tentative plans to further her mission in later versions, including allowing direct communication with reporters through the in-app chat client. The idea is that being transparent and inclusive with the audience shows that we’re on their level — we’re not above them, we are with them.

Now, Annie hasn’t launched yet. Maybe I’m wrong about all this audience-focused stuff, and I (and she) will be embarrassed. But I believe in Annie and the focus on audience, because this is the only way things can move forward.

It is so, so, so important now to keep this in mind. This year, the public has shown us that it values accurate, full-fledged journalism. But that also means we have a mandate to listen to them and unify the world behind these common facts.

The audience is looking to us for a mission and purpose. And it seems like we as an industry are giving that to them:

But all of this showmanship and branding will go to waste if we can’t deliver what the newly developed audience expects: us to care about them, give them what they need and deserve and make a positive difference.

We can’t let our egos get in the way.