The most important questions a journalist can ask

Journalism works best when it is read by people. It’s not about clicks, it’s about being relevant and meaningful to people. Get that right, and journalism’s ability to hold the powerful to account and generally make a difference is all the greater.

After several decades of newspaper sales decline, digital journalism offers us the chance to reconnect with readers who, for whatever reason, don’t consider buying a newspaper to be a daily habit anymore.

But in a world where journalists compete for attention from readers not just from rival publications but from any digital thing seeking attention, how do we make sure we’re writing the stuff people want to read.

Last year, there was confusion over Trinity Mirror’s digital content strategy in the trade press.  A sentence in a consultation document which said reporters should consider how many people might read a story. As a yardstick, if a story is expected to generate fewer than 1,000 page views, reporters should consider whether the reader interest warrants the time spent researching, reporting and publishing that article.

Soon, it became ‘ban on stories with fewer than 1,000 page views’ and so on – which was wrong. Indeed, having checked recently, the titles I work with still publish a lot of stories which generate fewer than 1,000 page views, but which editors and news editors still consider to be important. There’s also a huge array of important news stories which reach far more people than they would have done a year ago simply because reporters and news editors ask themselves: “If this is important, how do we get it to more people?” 

It is, surely, the most important question a journalist can ask. 

Answers here can include format of content (eg live blogs), promotion on social media, placement in newsletters, push notifications and so on.

I mention all of this because I was impressed by a new guide released by American publisher McClatchy to its newsrooms. It too, prompted a Twitter storm, but addresses the biggest challenge every newsroom faces: Making every minute count.

There, they are encouraging reporters to carry out a ‘check list’ before embarking on any story. Many more important questions:

audience mcclatchy

Then:

mcclatchy2

In other words, think about the readers and the impact you can have. Journalism can be beautiful, and its important as many people as possible see its beauty.

The company’s VP of News, Tim Grieve, outlined the plan on Twitter:

timgrieve1

timgreive2

If you dig around on Twitter, you’ll see as many people objecting to the proposal as supporting it – but it’s finely balanced. My question would be: Why would journalists be against thinking of the reader when deciding what to write when journalism’s strength comes from its ability to demonstrate it is representing readers?

Part of journalism’s challenge is to identify the content people want to read, but equally important is convincing readers of the importance of the content we regard as important too.

Without readers, we are nothing.

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