Why audience targets can be good for journalism

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.

10 comments

  1. Interesting defence of the move, David – although while I agree that strengthening the local content that readers want is key, with targets like these in place how long before some hacks and even titles are forced down the route of just publishing that self-same clickbait just to bolster numbers on a quiet month? You talk of targets, but you don’t explain what happens if targets aren’t met? Do hacks have a grace period, or are they now under a constant cloud of ‘miss a number, pick up a P45’?

    You say “Targets don’t limit the ability to spend days on the right story, or the ability to experiment”. That’s true, but as we’ve seen, TM’s threshold for experimentation is finite, hence why bold but niche sites like UsvTh3m, Ampp3d etc were canned. And in these days when fewer and fewer hacks are given the time or the opportunity to operate outside the office in pursuit of a story, especially against a background of further job cuts, how much leeway will they be given in getting that right story over time, against the urgency to fill pages both print and digital.

    You say “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”. Except that’s not necessarily true, as that relies on the journalists being set targets that are achievable and being brought along for the process. Given TM’s ever sharpened axe, how many will be naturally fearful regardless of the targets. What’s actually being done to work with them and bring them along for the ride?

    I note my former colleagues at the Record, who are also being hit with cuts, are losing three of their multimedia hacks at a time when TM continues to bang a drum about strengthening the digital business. It sounds a conflicted message to those looking from the outside and, from what I’ve heard from CQ, those inside too,

    My views on Greensnide are pretty well documented so I’ve no truck with his hype about the death knell of journalism, but I fear he is right in one respect – “Trinity Mirror is letting down both the public and its journalists”. At the very least, the latter would appear to be the case. And the lack of even a note of sympathy for those losing their jobs in your defence doesn’t give much confidence that the other journalists are being supported or defended in the process. I hope I’m wrong, and I don’t doubt the rationale behind the choices is right, but with TM’s track record scepticism is pretty much understandable.

    1. Hi Iain,

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. As I think I make clear regularly on this blog, I write it in a personal capacity, it’s not here to communicate the view of the company I work for. So this post is meant to be about why I feel properly-set, structured targets (more like goals, actually) should be good for journalism.

      You say I lack sympathy, or don’t show it here. Hopefully I’ve shown sympathy and respect to those directly involved when talking to them this week, both in groups and individually, in Birmingham.

      On your earlier points, I think it comes down to how targets/goals are managed. If it was a case that there was a news editor stood shouting over a reporter’s shoulder to hit a target at all costs, then I would share your concerns. But it’s in everybody’s interests for the collective audience target to bit hit in a way which makes the target more reachable the following month. That’s done by writing content which drives loyalty and engagement, not the fingers-crossed-it-got-me-over-the-line type approach. A bit like newspaper ad departments on free weeklies which got into the habit of discounting ads on the day before publication and in the end all the advertisers knew to hold out until the day before publication to get the discount. The ‘at all costs hit a number’ approach always fails.

      The targets can’t be as black and white as ‘you’ve not hit it, you’ve failed’ and I wouldn’t want to be part of a structure or system which was doing that. The targets/goals aim to help everyone make the most of audience data and ask how time can be best spent to reach as many people as possible in a way which keeps people coming back to the site. That may mean over time newsrooms change what they write about, do more of some stuff, and less of other stuff, but in an informed way.

      I think experimentation of an idea will always be finite because there comes a point when you can determine success or otherwise.

      1. Hi David

        Thanks for replying. I’m don’t doubt you have sympathy – I think my point was that the blog piece felt very clinical at a time when people who are reading it are undoubtedly going to be hot around the changes coming at TM, but I’m happy to withdraw and correct any suggestion you haven’t.

        It’s interesting you say the structure isn’t designed to be black and white – in which case, how does such a system operate withing a regional structure? Are targets based on the vagaries of their geographic and thematic beats? Is there allowance built in to metrics reporting for those instances where, as you say, reporters can go work on a story for several days? Because that seems to conflict with the idea of making the most of audience data to improve time management for reaching as many people as possible somewhat unless the measurement of success fits that in.

        In which case, how does that hit younger hacks who may be coming in without the contacts or the beats that let them go work on those big hitting stories – don’t they risk becoming churn fodder purely because their very starting point requires them to produce content to hit targets without the experience or contacts to generate those stories?

        Are the targets just based on clicks/visits, or is to do with referrals, dwell time on stories, onward journeys and so forth too – which are possibly as important, if not more important, than straight up and down PVs – and how does the wider company support structure fit within that?

        A contact at the MEN told me of the demands they face in terms of the number of liveblog events they have to do per week, leading to some utterly spurious things being done as lives just to meet quotas. In those kind of instances, I’m not sure how that’s making the best use of audience data.

        Don’t get me wrong. I absolutely agree that journalists should be writing to what the audience wants, and I think it’s great if the support is there though analytics to help guide that, strengthen editorial propositions and ultimately improve output. There’s lots of lessons that can be learned – even a cursory skim of any of the DEN sessions this week would confirm that – but I’m cautious that the targets aren’t just a backdoor way of helping identify who to fire next across a media group which has been swinging the axe with gay abandon over the last few years.

      2. Hi Iain. Targets/goals have to be set locally to reflect the local website, the content it covers and so on. Page views and unique users drive the targets, but the volume of local users is also important as is the impact a story has with regular and loyal users. The sharing of a story is also important, as this reflects the opinion of the story (often, not always).

        This isn’t a time management thing so much as a ‘is what we are writing having an impact and of interest to readers’ thing so that does allow time for experimentation or slightly slower burn stuff. But it does force us to check that what we are doing is relevant to readers, and if it’s not but we feel it is important, we have to find a way to make it relevant to them.

        The MEN liveblog point is a good one. We’re experimenting with real-time coverage of lots of things at the moment to see what works. I remember when we launched the rolling news live blogs two years ago – many said they were a waste of time and not real journalism. They now are the most read pieces of content by our local, loyal audiences – so an example of experimentation working.

  2. There are a few ‘facts’ here which I’m not sure I’d agree with…

    “Newsrooms have always been judged on audience and individual reporters on how popular their stories were deemed to be” – This is certainly not the case in the newsrooms I worked in (I left the industry in January). The real journalists only cared about the strength of the story – not how popular it was.

    The kind of journalism you seem to be advocating here is the reason why people’s phones were hacked. The old saying about the public interest / interests of the public should be remembered.

    Your justification of reporting football rumours just about sums it up. Why not extend this to the Newsdesk too? What’s the difference between reporting rumours about the local team and reporting rumours about a bloke in a van outside schools? Both are just rumours, so why is it ok to report one and not the other? The truth is the truth and rumour is rumour – and newspapers have always been above that. Continue with this thinking and you are promoting complacency from reporters. Facts will go unchecked and stories will be wrong. If you mess with these boundaries I’m not sure how papers will ever get any of these loyal readers you mention.

    1. Hi, thanks for your comment TR. I’m certainly not advocating any approach which involves breaking the law.

      I don’t think it is enough for journalists to only care about the strength of a story – journalists have to be able to tell readers why it is important that they spend time reading that story when their attention is being fought for my thousands of other websites.

      Of those thousands of websites, those which will be strongest – and most attractive to advertisers – will be the ones with credibility and a loyal audience. So facts can’t go unchecked and stories can’t be wrong – and when they are wrong, they need to be corrected openly and honestly.

      As journalists, if we only go so far as to care about the strength of a story rather than the impact it has and the people it is viewed, we aren’t doing all we can to make a difference.

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