Give the audience what they want or what they need? There’s an even better question.

Two particular questions have been haunting newsrooms’ strategy conversations, causing severe moral dilemmas and destabilizing the industry. They are:

Should we give the audience what they want?

OR

Should we give the audience what they need?

Besides introducing a false dichotomy, the big trouble with these questions is that they start from two flawed assumptions: 1. that newsrooms already know what audiences want and 2. that newsrooms can and should determine what their audience needs. The framing of these questions doesn’t leave room for members of the audience to actually speak for themselves.

Instead newsrooms assume a position akin to parents making decisions about their children’s diets. To draw out the metaphor, if newsrooms give the audience what they want, they’ll ask for content equivalent to candy and hot dogs (E.g., listicles and fluff). And if newsrooms give the audience what they need, they’ll cross their arms and stick out their tongues like it’s hot, mushy broccoli (E.g., the “important stories,” or however a newsroom defines the less sexy, yet critical, work).

Give ’Em What They Want

So how do newsrooms determine what the audience wants? They’re increasingly looking to analytics for answers. With finer and finer grain metrics, they pore over which of the newsroom’s offerings get the most clicks, shares, time on site, or whatever the metric du jour is. They then do their best to repeat whatever they believe was the magic ingredient of the story’s success.

John West does a brilliant job of unpacking the serious problems inherent in metrics-based editorial decisions in a recent Quartz piece, Humans are losing the battle against Kardashian-loving algorithms for the soul of new media. He argues that while metrics have emerged out of the real need to monetize digital publishing, privileging those numbers in editorial decision-making leads the industry to conclude that the audience wants fluff, punditry, sports, and celebrity gossip. West goes on to argue how that reading may not be true, and that metrics can be misleading and biased.

The more newsrooms play out this metrics scenario — further attempting to measure audience desires by the limited number of stories they offer — the more their offerings narrow as they try to zero in on the ever-changing magic formula to attract the clicks and dollars (cents). But less variety has never made for a healthier, vibrant democracy. (For more on this point, check out this follow-up post, in comics form.)

Give ’Em What They Need

What does that even mean? The general assumption is that what audiences need (aka “what’s good for them”) is “hard” news and investigative stories. But the read on metrics seems to tell newsrooms that if you give the audience what they need, they’ll balk (just like serving children their vegetables).

The problem with this whole mindset traces back, again, to who gets to decide what the audience needs. The traditional model of journalism awards editors and reporters that power. They make those decisions around editorial tables filled with people who don’t often resemble the demographics of the communities they’re hoping and trying to serve.

Yet, audiences are more informed and have more control over their own media diets than ever before. They’re already making decisions about which news sites to read, which reporters to follow, and which links to click. They don’t require newsrooms to guess at their needs and make decisions for them, no matter how good those intentions. They need newsrooms to cut through the noise, listen to their actual needs, and respond accordingly with relevant stories.

Since audiences know their own information needs better than a reporter ever could, why not just ask them what they need?

A better question

These two simple yet deeply flawed questions about wants and needs are leading newsrooms and their journalists to stray further from their mission and purpose. Which leads to the question: what is the purpose of journalism? Answers are infinite, but the American Press Institute’s definition offers a solid starting point. It says the purpose “is to provide citizens with the information they need to make the best possible decisions about their lives, their communities, their societies, and their governments.” So, if that definition resonates, then a better question newsrooms could focus on answering is this:

What does our community not know that we could help them find out and understand?

To answer this question, journalists have to start by listening to their audience. They have to ask: “What don’t you know? What do you want to know? Why do you want or need to know it?” In the process, reporters grant their audience a voice and affirm their ability to determine their own needs. By starting stories with the audience’s stated information needs, reporters then can know whether their stories are truly relevant before the metrics (or comments) roll in.

To learn what their audiences don’t know but are interested in finding out, newsrooms can use a variety of methods — and they don’t have to involve expensive surveys and unwieldy focus groups that conclude with vague answers like “do more education stories.” Here’s how some newsrooms are going about it, using a model we’ve been developing (aka the Hearken model):

Hearken newsrooms start by gathering specific audience questions. Depending on the newsroom, those questions might be about the next city council meeting, a particular beat, the region as a whole, etc. These questions are a form of actionable feedback for reporters and become instant, targeted assignments from the public.

But why collect questions, rather than asking audiences for story pitches or suggestions? I’d say questions are a beautiful framework because they come from a neutral place of curiosity. Whereas on the flip side, soliciting pitches or suggestions often ends up attracting people with an axe to grind or marketers with a product to sell. It attracts people who already know something and who want other people to know that thing. When journalists get inundated with feedback like that, they can feel like shills, and can understandably become less open to listening to their audiences.

Questions instead create a neutral meeting ground where information can be procured, shared and used to advance a collective understanding, rather than further divide audiences along lines of pre-formed opinions. After all, every news story is in some way the answer to a question. What’s the weather going to be like today? Who won the game? What important things were decided at that important meeting? Questions form the backbone of journalism. The audience is curious. Why not let them ask, too?

Stories the audience wants and needs

Based on our experiences with Hearken newsrooms around the world, we’ve found that starting stories from submitted audience questions allows journalists to serve that public by publishing stories they both want and need. Bonus: this approach serves the bottom line, too.

Here are just a few examples from our newsrooms in which audience questions have led to stories that are relevant and popular and satisfy the audience’s information needs.

Michigan Radio continuously takes questions from their audiences and reports answers via their series M.I. Curious. One curious citizen named J.T. Cross asked, “What’s the status of the aged Enbridge oil pipeline running through Lake Michigan at the Straits of Mackinac?” There wasn’t much transparency about the plans for this pipeline, and media coverage of it had fallen out of the standard reactive, press-release-fueled news cycle. Had J.T. called up the company in charge of the pipeline and asked for answers, it’s unlikely he would have gotten far, and yet this was a clear information need for J.T. and his community. His one simple question lead to a series of stories that broke news, spurred action and even netted Michigan Radio a regional Edward R. Murrow Award for Investigative Journalism.

Reveal (The Center for Investigative Reporting) broke big stories about the California drought. Oftentimes, big stories lead to even more questions, but usually when audiences ask those follow-ups they get buried in the comments section (if a newsroom even has comments). There’s no obvious dedicated space for the audience to make their information needs and wants known. Reveal wanted to offer that space, and they wanted to keep the drought conversation and coverage going past the breaking news cycle, so they asked their audiences, “what questions do you have about the California drought?” Over the course of just a few days, they gathered 96 incisive questions, and reported answers to a solid handful of them. Conveniently, the team already knew answers to many of the questions from earlier reporting, but they didn’t have reason to release it until the audiences asked for it. Reveal also put a few of those audience questions up for a vote and reported out the answer to this fascinating question: “How much does water cost, and what is its actual value? What are the economic and political factors that go into how water is priced?”

WYSO is a tiny but mighty public radio station in Yellow Springs, Ohio. They’ve been using the Hearken model since before it was officially called Hearken. And their series WYSO Curious shows that oftentimes news organizations miss great questions hidden in plain sight. Former managing editor Lewis Wallace answered a question (submitted by multiple listeners) about the origin of a bright blue lake off a highway in town. He said that just about everyone in town had wondered about that lake but no news outlet had covered the story. Lewis’ answer was the most popular story ever posted on the WYSO site, by a wide margin.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) runs a series called Curious Canberra to cultivate questions about that city and region. The first question they answered was asked by a number of people: Are there secret tunnels in Canberra? The resulting story was one of the top stories of the month, and even broke their Facebook share record with a teaser video before the story’s release.

Our partners have collected thousands of audience questions and reported hundreds upon hundreds of stories like these: original stories that are both on-mission and extremely popular.

Listening is more than tech

A newsroom can take a public-powered approach and listen to their audience using any number of tools (such as, of course, Hearken), but the key is much more fundamental than any technology and workflow solution.

It starts with a new mindset that doesn’t require newsrooms to choose between their metrics and their mission. That mindset requires removing the assumption that newsrooms know best, and acknowledging that audiences are experts in their own interests and in their own communities.

This mindset accepts that audiences are equipped to recognize their own information needs and that they are fully capable of asking great questions with tremendous news value. And this mindset positions journalists as the right resource to provide fact-checked, quality answers.

We think audiences will take notice if newsrooms truly start listening to them rather than assuming what they want or need. And we can’t help but believe that audiences will truly care about and support newsrooms who serve their needs so directly.