How do you put the reader at the heart of every newsroom decision? Share the data, and love the data

A whole bunch of articles have been written in recent weeks about the plan the company I work for, Trinity Mirror, has to introduce individual audience goals for reporters at the Birmingham Mail. It’s been a project I’ve been heavily involved in and one, which as I said in a post the other week, believe will be good for getting closer to the audience that matters the most: Loyal, local readers.

To many on the outside – particularly those in academia – it feels like a big change, and many have jumped to the conclusion that it can only be a bad thing because it will result in the Birmingham Mail prioritising Kim Kardashian stories over Birmingham City Council stories.

Anyone who knows anything about local digital journalism knows that such an approach is simply a recipe for disaster. But, ironically maybe for those who set themselves up as the watchers of the watchers, few of those who have written about the plans have made much effort to source information for themselves.

That point to one side, many of the critical posts – most of which have a ‘I need to be seen to be writing about the journalism topic du jour’ tone to them – inadvertently make points which support the importance of giving individual journalists access to the audience metrics which tell them the impact their stories are having.

Journalism has changed. It can’t just be about shouting for attention. Readers expect to be listened to, and their views taken into account. The right use of audience data enables that to happen every day.

I wanted to flag up an article written by Prof George Brock of City University. His article here contained an odd mix of criticisms which made for a confusing read. But, errors about how we intend to go about managing audience goals to one side (and the failure to fact check before putting pen to paper), he makes a couple of points which are worth sharing, and get to the heart of the matter.

“New sites must generate enough material to get their chosen community’s attention and to start the ads flowing in. Rapidly written clickbait wasn’t a good way of keeping reader loyalty.”

That’s very true, but also very obvious. And this:

Journalists can’t just rely on doing what they did before and they must pay attention to what their audience cares about. Readers, users and audiences can choose from a wider range of sources of news and opinion; they can argue, interact with and influence those same sources. They cannot be taken for granted in the way that they once were.

One way of helping – rather than scaring – Trinity Mirror journalists might be to concentrate on demonstrating that what they produce is valued by people in Birmingham and Coventry. Simple clicks are evidence of passing interest or curiosity, not of a piece of journalism being valued. Journalism really can’t be taken as a given; it has timeless aims and values – but in the information-rich age of smartphones, Facebook and 24-hour news channels, journalists should add value to peoples’ lives – and be judged to do so. A good deal of mainstream journalism, inspired by the pre-digital era, still doesn’t pass this test.

If only the Professor has bothered to ask whether the plan is to just measure clicks, which was the assumption on which his post was based. It’s not, and what he’s advocating here is actually what is already done.  You look at local audiences, the amount of time they spend on sites, the number of shares a story gets, the number of frequent visitors checking a story and many others beyond.

But you also have to make the metrics relevant to journalists tasked with bringing in the stories. Distilling those metrics down to three of four they can watch and respond to isn’t about chasing clickbait, it’s about understanding what readers want. That could mean changing the way some stories are presented to reach more readers or maybe no longer doing others in favour of things which do attract an audience.

It certainly does mean making sure that local news brands have enough clout online to make people stop when we tell them something is important enough to command five minutes of their time.

How does a regional newsbrand compete with all those other websites demanding the attention of readers? By being consistently good at content which matters to them, and being trusted enough so that when we say something is important, they believe us.

Think about it – who are you most likely to listen to when they want to tell you something you don’t instantly find interesting? A friend whose opinion you value, and who makes a positive difference to your life, or some shouting stranger on the street? Local news brands need – and increasingly are – the former, not the latter. Valued, as the Professor suggests.

It’s not – as some have suggested – the death of investigative journalism in newsrooms. Death will become investigative local journalism if newsrooms don’t build an engaged, local audience visiting websites on which advertising can be served. The assumption that audience goals marks the demise of investigative journalism assumes that investigative journalism can’t interest readers. It can, if we have the right relationship with them.

Data tells us that people value both the journalism which takes time and effort, and the stories which are quicker to produce too. Audience data already tells us that – sharing that out and making sure everyone is acting upon it shouldn’t seem revolutionary, and indeed for many journalists in the newsroom I work with, it isn’t.

Put simply, ensuring everybody is looking and responding to the right audience goals is the best way to ensure that readers are being heard in every decision a newsroom takes. 

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