Do you know for sure that you’re actually helping your audience when you set about writing your next story? Here’s how the User Needs for News model can point you in the right direction.

It’s a regular day in the newsroom. Stuff’s happening. Coffee’s being drunk. There’s an ambient buzz of keyboards tapping and the ping of message notifications.

And then - as happens every day - something newsworthy presents itself.

We jump to it, report it, publish it or even push it.

But maybe, just maybe, we should pause for a moment and consider if we’re being too hasty (you might even come to the conclusion that not writing the story at all is the best choice).

Your new mantra: value over volume

The default position of newsrooms has long been to publish Update Me articles.

What are those? Well, chances are they’re what you’ve been doing. The Update Me approach is the classic who, what, where, when formula of news - and it does exactly what it says. If it’s a news story, a live blog, a summary or write up, chances are it falls under this category.

There’s not necessarily a problem with this. Breaking News is, after all, synonymous with journalism. But by being on auto-pilot, there’s a real chance you’re missing out on vital opportunities to build your audience engagement. The audience often desires something else when it comes to consuming the news.

And, by pausing for a moment you might just end up doing less, but getting more. You could work more efficiently and effectively, so your readers get value over volume. Pretty intriguing, right?

Before you start doing what you usually do, consider these two things:

1. Decide which user need you should be trying to satisfy

In the BBC’s User Needs for News model, Dmitry Shishkin identified six. Update Me is one for sure, but the other five are where it starts to get really interesting - and where you typically find the drivers of engagement that most newsrooms rely on from a business model point of view (subscriptions, memberships etc).

These questions can help you pick the best user need for your story.

In most newsrooms, the conversation about which topic to cover is almost always followed by a discussion about a format - how to cover it. In principle, there’s nothing wrong with this, but it does mean you tend to miss a crucial step: deciding which user you'll need to address. That's where your editorial analytics system comes in. It should be able to show you any meaningful links between the variables of any given story. For example, a followup to a business story will get more traction if you do it through the 'Give me perspective' lens, or even the 'Inspire me' one. Every section editor should be responsible for taking advantage of these connections, as they’ll likely differ from topic to topic within the same newsroom.

Portrait of Dmitry Shishkin

Dmitry Shishkin Digital publishing consultant, user needs evangelist

So, it might be that you publish your breaking news story, but use this approach to follow up on a certain aspect of the article. It may be that the news you’ve got is better suited to a different User Need anyway. The point is, take a moment to consider where your energies are best placed.

2. Be aware of your brand DNA

What makes your newsroom unique? Why do your readers come to you? What would happen if your publication wasn’t there anymore?

Most people don’t consider these questions, but they are massively important. Do your readers know what they can expect from you? Are you delivering that?

If, as a newsroom, you don't fully agree on your role or place in the market, you’ll find it hard to execute what you do effectively - and your editorial focus simply won’t be sharp enough. You'll end up drifting, chasing the agenda, comparing yourself to others, and producing more of the same just like everybody else. Newsrooms often lack the editorial confidence in themselves to say 'this is the niche I’m going to occupy and I'll be the best in it'. Most need to be more assertive; it’s better for the reader, and it’s better for your business bottom line.

Portrait of Dmitry Shishkin

Dmitry Shishkin Digital publishing consultant, user needs evangelist

Specific is good. Unique is even better.

Time for an example

Let’s take the false wolf spider. These alarming-sounding arachnids have recently found their way into the houses of unsuspecting folk in the Netherlands, and have proven irresistible to newsrooms. After all, no one expects a possibly venomous spider in these parts, eh?

Trouble is, for all the headlines and coverage, there’s typically one question that doesn’t get answered, and that’s what the heck a false wolf spider is and whether or not they’re actually dangerous.

Most of the time, editors assume a degree of knowledge from their audience, which isn’t necessarily there yet. When you’re in ‘news mode’ you don’t want to write a Wikipedia page; you need to sound more urgent. Thing is, you need a different angle to make it useful and truly valuable.

stefan colleague

Stefan ten Teije Senior content editor @ smartocto

Pop Quiz

Following a tip, you’ve just published a news story about a kid finding a false wolf spider in his bedroom. Which user need for news might be the best choice for a follow up story?

  1. Divert me
  2. Educate me
  3. Keep me on trend
  4. Inspire me
  5. Give me perspective

Check our our Smartoctober webinar.

But for now, three tips to get you started

  1. Start with six headlines

Next time a news story presents itself, start with headlines - and use the six user needs as prompts. Can you make one for each?

2. Listen to feedback

Are people commenting on your article? What are they saying? Use these responses and momentum to publish something to answer any remaining questions.

3. Pretend you’re not a journalist

Journalists and editors make a lot of assumptions about news - and what people actually know. Do your readers *really* know what Brexit is? Do they understand the ins and outs of the soccer transfer window? Are they secretly terrified of a massive spider infestation? Take a step back and consider whether you need to publish some ‘101’ type articles first (spoiler: you probably do).