Back in 2013, AP’s Tom Rosenstiel addressed an interesting topic in his TedX keynote on the future of journalism when he asked the following question: has digital disruption in journalism made the world better - or worse?

The digital shift has radically altered the news landscape: where newsrooms once called the shots and set the schedule, it’s now consumers who wield the power. The democratisation of information has forever changed the relationship between newsroom and consumer - but how? Why? And, most importantly, what does it mean for publishers?

Of course, answers to questions like that are never simple. Rosenthiel pointed out that while people have had more access to news, newsrooms themselves were - and are - shrinking. It was his contention that ultimately it would be the audience who would be the ones to determine the future of news. And now - in 2022 - we see that he was right. But I’ll come back to that later.

The more interesting question is what accounted for the shift and wavering fortunes of newsrooms at the forefront of everyone in the industry - it’s something which urgently needs addressing. There’s an underlying change in the relationship between the two, which if left unchecked is likely to see further news outlets fall foul of reader indifference. And there’s the crux. It’s the audience, damnit.

Power to the people

In Rosenstiel's keynote he makes an interesting remark about traditional media and today's online dynamics. Traditional media, he said, grew out of the conviction that these newspapers and journalists were those best placed to know and bring the truth to the people. As a result, they determined what the public should think and value. The public simply had to trust that these media would bring the news to them in the right form, in the right way, on a pre-ordained schedule, so that everyone was up-to-date on the things these traditional media determined to be important.

Today, things have turned 180 degrees. Now, the public itself decides what, where and when they want to consume the news - and which form of news or media they’d like to receive it in. News is omnipresent, and the luxury of choice, channel, form and time makes the audience believe that the right news will find them instead of the other way around. Audiences are no longer waiting for the next scheduled bulletin, they abide by their own schedules, and pursue their own interests.

the public decides what, where and when they want to consume the news

The relationship between newsroom and audience has shifted - and, if we’re completely honest - it sometimes feels like only one side has acknowledged this. Use and usefulness have to be earned. And as it’s an audiences’ market, it's incumbent upon us on the other side of the digital printing press to demonstrate our worth.

The golden circle

The bedrock of this is simple: in order to be able to show that you understand your audience, you need to know what they like, desire or value. And to be able to master that, you need to gather the right data to ‘profile’ this. Simon Sinek’s famous keynote presentation on the golden circle is particularly insightful - and a great place to start.

The Golden Circle

For those that need a quick recap, his premise is that in order to become relevant you shouldn’t build your brand proposition on what you do, or on how you do it. You must focus on why you do it and think always about the value your brand brings to the lives of your audience.

We’d go a step further: at smartocto we believe that you can only build a great and distinctive proposition if you know who you are addressing it to. This is absolutely key - and once you embrace this, it’s a game changer.

Here’s where you start

So, back to the beginning. Rosenstiel predicted that the audience would eventually determine the future of news, and yes, he was right. But this doesn’t mean that companies should be beholden to audiences and dictated by them. We’re in a transition period where newsrooms may feel that they’re not entirely in control of their own destinies - and the audiences’ ability to pick and choose what they want to read can seem chaotic and unpredictable.

So what should we do with that information? And why is it still so difficult to listen and contribute to the demands of our audience? Well, actually it isn’t. The tools are there, but to become relevant and to stay relevant in the vertical of news offering you need to start seriously investing in the process of understanding your audience’s desires.

using audience cues to steer content commissioning, production and publication

There are two ways we could take Rosenthiel’s prediction: either that publishers are now at the behest of audiences and are in service to them, or that newsrooms take cues from audiences’ behaviour to inform a broader editorial strategy. Those are two quite different things. Naturally, we think the future lies in the latter: using audience cues to steer content commissioning, production and publication. Here’s where you start. Collect the right data you need so you can answer questions like:

  • What topics do your audience like?
  • What headlines make them click and stay?
  • What content do they share?
  • What articles do they read from top to bottom (and back)?
  • What are their content consumption patterns?

All those questions (and more besides) need to be answered in order to build a brand that’s meaningful. Rosenthiel’s 2013 prediction might be spot on for where we are now, but that doesn’t mean that the future of news will forever be determined by that almost decade-old insight.

Newsrooms now have a massive opportunity to take what the audience has shown us they want, need, and search for, and let those behaviours form the basis of new editorial approaches and strategies. The last decade’s technological innovations have been a gift: we were blind to audiences’ reading patterns until the digital age effectively corrected our vision. Knowing what we do now, there’s no reason we can’t anticipate and plan better.

It’s down to us, the newsrooms

“Invest in your most important task: understanding what readers and viewers and users care about.” - RV

The responsibility and opportunity to grow is here for the taking. The brilliant thing is that we’re now starting to see proof from many quarters that this user-centric approach works. Dmitry Shishkin, who famously implemented a user needs driven strategy at BBC World Service in 2017, recently published a piece on LinkedIn reflecting on whether the adoption of this approach has had any beneficial effect. Spoiler alert: it most certainly has.

BBC Russia has benefited from an impressive uptick in engagement, achieved through better planning and a more sensitive and nuanced understanding of their readers and users. Not only are they getting better audience engagement, they’re actually producing less content than they were back in 2017 because they understand their commissioning differently. From a business point of view, this is a clear positive. More engagement, longer session times and all those good things are the kinds of success metrics that hopefully translate into good financials. But, it’s a win for your audience too. All the metrics tell us that they’re happier and more engaged with the content they’re reading and watching and listening to.

Make it happen!

The brilliant thing about BBC Russia’s success with an audience-first editorial approach, is that it’s attainable by anyone willing enough to embrace it.

Can you honestly say that you’re scheduling content that best answers your audiences’ needs? Perhaps you can, and, if so, well done. That’s fabulous. But, if there are alarm bells ringing here, that’s fine too. Identifying the problem is the first step, after all. One of the greatest gifts you can give your audience is spending time understanding what they need and when they need it. Show them they’re your biggest concern by creating and scheduling content that answers those needs appropriately. Translate it into news content that’s relevant, and develop a strategy on timing and channel that maximises engagement.

Make it happen!