“Too many of us editors and reporters are out of touch with our readers. Too often, the question we ask is ‘Do we have the story?’ rather than ‘Does anyone want the story?'”
I was surprised to learn this comment was made by Rupert Murdoch. In a speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 2005, he spoke about the need to be more in tune with the people “we rely on to come back to us each day”, and warned of the “distastrous” consequences of being out of tune with readers’ needs.
Joanna Geary, Community and Web Developer Editor of The Times, echoed this when she came to talk to Cardiff journalism students last week. She spoke about the need to learn what readers are looking for and what they care about, even if the stories are not the ‘glamerous’, front-page splashes journalists so often go for.
Unlike many of the lectures we have heard until now, Geary took the view that while the barriers between journalists and the audience have dropped, things have not panned out as optimistically as people had hoped.
Speaking realistically, Geary reminded students “people are busy! They don’t have the time or privilege to investigate the things that are important to them”. For this reason, the idea of ‘the people’ taking the reigns and writing their own content has not quite taken off. Undoubtedly the audience has become more empowered, by developments like the internet, but there is still a gaping hole where readers’ needs are not being met.
This very much struck a chord with me. As journalists we are so eager to get the biggest, most exciting, most dramatic stories, that we overlook what is most important to our audiences. What we as writers deem to be of great significance might be largely irrelevant to our readers. By the same token, parking problems might not get a journalist’s juices flowing, but may be vitally important to members of the local community.
Geary reminded students that the merits of a story should be judged on whether the readers want and need it, not just the number of visits or comments. Are the readers engaged? Are they getting the information they want? Do they care about what you’re writing about? “What’s important is what our readers want”, she said.
It is for this reason collaborative work is often the best, said Geary. Perhaps “the people formerly known as the audience” ought to be replaced with “the community formerly known as the audience”, she said. We need to start listening to what our readers really want, then use our time and resources to give it to them. As Adam Tinworth reminded students some weeks ago, journalists serve their audiences, so understanding their needs is vital.