Collaborating to enhance the editorial process seems like a logical move. But as a journalist, you may prefer to maintain independence and autonomy when altering your workflow. However, the Dutch regional broadcasters are pioneering a shift that prioritises user needs as a starting point for change.

Are audience needs really so different from a few years ago? No, but they have become more important in a media landscape that is increasingly focused on niches, say Dmitry Shishkin and Rutger Verhoeven to their guests during a masterclass in Utrecht. "Only 3 percent of everything people do on the internet is consuming news," says Dmitry. "People have other things to do. Therefore, you have to make extra effort to be of value."

A group of 40 reporters and editors from all 13 Dutch regional broadcasters came together to learn and discuss the needs of their visitors. Their employers are in the process of putting together a data team to help the editorial teams better interpret what they see in the graphs and overviews of smartocto.

"Think about your unique selling point," Dmitry tries to stimulate. "What is the mission of your organisation? My experience is that if you ask 10 colleagues, you may get 10 different answers. That is a problem."

Creating discussion upfront

Instead of relying solely on internal criticism after an item is created, it is more effective to employ a user-needs approach that prioritises upfront discussion and feedback.

For example, the editors of Omroep Flevoland talk about an item on their social media in which people in a fishing village were asked what the name of the famous fish sauce is that you get with every stand. An item that would fall under ‘Divert me’ in the User Needs Model. It was pure entertainment because all the people in the voxpop only gave wrong answers - schadenfreude. "But in the end, there was a lack of explanation: what is the correct name of that sauce?" says one of the editors. "So then discussion arises with the question of what the goal was and whether this type of content is appropriate for us." (For those who really want to know: the answer was ravigote sauce)

It is useful - no, even necessary - for a good content strategy to form the basis of what you publish daily, says discussion leader Rutger Verhoeven. "User needs help determining what the public is waiting for. That is the starting point for a thorough analysis."

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Confusion about topics and user needs

The question is: how does this approach change daily work? Although journalists are sharp questioners, answering this obvious question turns out to be difficult. "We know better which topics suit us," someone from Omroep Friesland says during an exercise. Confusion arises. "I totally disagree with that. User needs are about the way you present a story, not the subject, right?" Sometimes the fear is expressed that a model will suddenly take over the editorial office.

It is one of the discussions that always arises, says Dmitry Shishkin, who put several BBC editorial teams on the right track. "In that respect, user needs are not revolutionary at all, so relax, people. You still have control. You can still tell the stories you think you need to tell. It's about looking beyond your gut feeling. Think in advance about how your audience wants to receive the information. That's all."

Rutger Verhoeven emphasises that: “The User Needs Model is not about not covering the news anymore, it's all about covering the news from a different perspective in order to serve your audience better.”

After thoughts of the masterclass

7 tips that attendees were given to adapt their workflow to user needs

  1. Include a user need tag for every story you publish in the CMS. This means adding a mandatory checkbox in the CMS system. Another option is to set up a notification in Slack or another communication system for the editorial team in case a tag is missing.
  2. Get a poster or a different visualisation and leave it somewhere in your newsroom. Educational cards, magnets, and charts can also help to internalize user needs.
  3. When new (freelance) editors are added to the team, ensure that user needs are part of their onboarding process. It's much harder to change the process of existing editors than to make new colleagues use the model directly.
  4. Create a protocol that is ready to use when a news event occurs, such as an accident. It’s about predictable sequences. For example:

5. Create a newsletter that focuses solely on one specific user need. Subscribers will know exactly what to expect.

6. If an article continues to perform well, for example through search queries, it indicates that your audience is still looking for information. Consider a follow-up article. If you don't have time for that, put the article back on your homepage. Most visitors haven't seen it yet.

7. Keep a decision tree (a small checklist) next to your computer with a few simple questions, such as:

  • What is the purpose of the story?
  • Which user need am I satisfying?
  • How does it fit with the mission statement of my brand?