Journalists want people to read what we’ve written. Audience targets can help make sure we’re reaching as many people as possible
The issue of audience targets became a hot potato this week – and I can see why. But the reaction that seeking to write content which will be popular means we at the same time have to throw away our journalistic principles is one I think is wide of the mark.
I’ve written before that journalism is a combination of art and science in the digital age – and the correct use of audience data to drive decision making is surely part of that. So do targets damage the quality of local journalism? I don’t think so. I think they can actually make journalism better for the local community.
However, Roy Greenslade and The Times have reached their conclusions, as have many on Holdthefrontpage. But lets look at what makes a local news brand relevant in the 21st century. Greenslade calls audience targets clickbait payments. And if all you said was ‘here, hit this number, we don’t care how’ then he might be right.
But at the risk of letting the facts get in the way of a good headline, there are a number of aspects being overlooked here:
Readers aren’t stupid
The idea that ‘clickbait’ is the only way to reach audience targets assumes that’s all readers want. Analysis of data of stories written this year by the brands I work with time and again show that the content local, loyal audiences want is not that dissimilar to the content we’ve always thought they wanted.
Crime works, intelligent football coverage works, council stories which explain the impact to readers works, likewise health (read GPs and hospitals) and education (read schools). Our job is to make sure they are aware of the stories they need to be reading. There are many ways to do this.
So clickbait wouldn’t get us anywhere, anyway.
If you define clickbait as content designed to make you click but without a thought to the reaction of the reader when they actually get there, or write a story with a headline in mind just get then to visit, then the idea of a regional newsrooms charged with getting clicks at all cost is a horrible thought, and not one I’d want to be part of.
Bring on the UFO reporter, or any local city link to Kim Kardashian.
But local digital journalism will only survive if it continues to build up loyal, local audiences who sit right at the heart of the overall audience numbers we see published by Comscore, ABC and others. For regional titles, the number of local users and the number of frequent visitors are just as important when making content decisions as the headline unique user and page view figures are. As we enter an app age, journalism brands need to engage readers and make them loyal.
Local journalism will only do that if it’s writing about things which interest people already, or finding ways to interest people in the stuff they should be reading about. Building audience targets into decision-making helps achieve all of that.
Our challenge now is to make sure the stuff we know is important, important to readers too
To solve the problem of making sure a newspaper reported an important story which a newsdesk felt the paper had to cover but which it thought most people would find boring, said story would find itself on page 14.
Problem solved? Not really. In the digital age, we can measure the success of any story a million ways. We have to choose the right metrics to judge success – not just top-level uniques and page views – and we also have to make sure we’re doing all we can to make sure a story which is important gets the attention it deserves.
We do this through building relationships on social media, exploring news ways of telling stories (planning meetings as live blogs is one recent example) and developing digital brands which have the power to say: Stop, read this – you’ll see why it’s important. Public conscience journalism works best when the public is conscious of it.
But new formats of content are not necessarily bad…
…If they are done well, and if they are the right way to write content. Listicles often get derided as clickbait even when they are clearly performing a service to readers. Surely the job of regional newsrooms is to spot the opportunities to offer up content in more engaging ways to get more readers. For example, last season, Trinity Mirror titles often saw more people read a football writer’s list of the five things he learnt from a game than read his match report. Likewise, 10 things to do with the kids this weekend in a city is clearly valued by audiences clicking on it, who then also go on to share it as well.
As for football rumours – if football clubs themselves are happy to share them in a ‘look what others are saying’ way, why aren’t we? Our job is the same it has always been: Reaching readers with content in a way they want it. Had we understood that in the early 2000s, rather than waiting until the end of the decade to embrace digital as fully as we have done, we’d be welcoming many more visitors already.
Empower journalists to influence targets
Different jobs in newsrooms command different audience numbers, and that has to be reflected in targets. Newsrooms everywhere have an overall target each month – indeed, every title I work with already does – and most split that down to department level.
Making sure targets are realistic is essential, but so to is making sure journalists see the data about their work which can help inform what they report on next. If the target is realistic, then the data becomes a tool to understand what’s working (and to suggest more is done on that) and what isn’t working, from which we have to ask whether it’s worth pursuing or how we make it work better. Journalists want their stories to be read, and knowing how to get stories which are important to us across to a wide audience can only be helped by using audience data to drive decisions. Targets in turn help that.
Newsrooms have always been judged on audience and individual reporters on how popular their stories were deemed to be
It’s only in recent years that editors in charge of newspapers with shrinking circulations didn’t have to fear for their jobs if a blip became a trend, and rightly so – not even the best papers in the world can dodge circulation decline. But editors and journalists now have the power to command bigger audiences through journalism, something we’ve not been able to say for a good few years, and with that power comes the need to demonstrate we’re reaching as many people as possible.
For reporters everywhere, it’s long been accepted that some stories are more popular than others. As a former political reporter, I remember the immense frustration of seeing important stories being knocked further back in the book to make way for a blink-and-you-miss-it crime story which news editors felt would shift more papers that day. Targets don’t limit the ability to spend days on the right story, or the ability to experiment.
Because within every newsroom are plenty of quick wins which help drive audience numbers while not damaging the brand, or the journalist’s integrity. But they do ensure we focus on covering stuff people think is important, and challenge us to make sure readers respond to the stuff we think is important too.
To me, that’s a long way from the death knell of regional journalism which some have predicted. To sum up, audience targets aren’t something to be fearful of if they’re done in the right way.
And there is no incentive to go about them the wrong way.
Journalists should always be asking whether they are doing something because it will interest readers, or just because they’ve always done it.
It’s what the many new competitors ask themselves when they get going. It’s a big question, but the answer helps us focus on making our journalism essential daily reading for our audiences.
For those who have been so quick to announce this as the end of journalism, I can’t help but think they’ve fallen into the oldest trap of all: Not letting the facts get in the way of a good headline. I think that’s called clickbait these days.