After completing this chapter, you should be able to:
- Understand why media professionals need to value the audience now more than ever.
- Know the key questions editors must ask of themselves to better understand and serve their audience.
- Understand what makes media users different today than in previous generations and how to use that knowledge to best serve your readers.
- Define an audience through demographic, geographic and psychographic elements.
- Apply the five elements of interest that attract readers: fame, oddity, conflict, immediacy and impact.
The one thing all media professionals have in common is the need to reach an audience. News journalists, public relations practitioners, advertising professionals, marketers and social media managers all know that without an audience, nothing they do will matter. The goal of this book is to approach each area of the media field through the lens of audience centricity
, so we can come to a shared understanding of how to define an audience. We also need to determine what media content appeals to readers and what editors can do to help their media outlets connect with them.
Editors need to keep the audience in mind when assigning work, editing content and disseminating their products to consumers. An audience-centric piece is one that puts the focus on the people reading the content, not on the writer, the editor or the organization. Above all else, it should tell a story of some kind that engages the readers, makes them care about what they have seen and then connects them to future content from the author or the outlet. To that end, when we discuss the idea of “storytelling” in this book, it isn’t a “newspaper thing” but rather a broader understanding of how best to reach the audience in a clear, valuable and meaningful way.
If you don’t keep the audience in mind when editing, you will drive people away from your media outlet. As you read through any written piece, ask a few of the following audience-centric questions:
- Who cares about this story?
- Why should they care?
- Can I complete the sentence “This matters because …” as it relates to this story?
- Do the readers have everything they need to know about this story?
- Has the story kept the attention of the readers?
- Has the story been written at the appropriate level for this audience?
- Does the story tell the readers something new and/or different?
Unfortunately, this level of analysis has been undercut through the reduction of media staffs and the 24/7 pressures of getting content out on all platforms. In other cases, a sense of tradition and heavy reliance on news-writing staples have sapped copy of an audience-centric focus. Good
editors will find a way to balance the pressure to perform for an organization and the needs of a readership to shape valuable content in a way that satisfies key interests of both sides.
For example, if you receive a report on a city council’s decision to use a plot of land for a park instead of a set of condominiums, you need to know who is in your audience and what will most interest them. An editor for a newspaper might place the focus on the 5W’s and 1H
elements of this issue. The editor will have a reporter dutifully explain the outcome of the vote, provide quotes from both sides of the vote and get reaction from people this decision most directly affects. This editor understands that the paper’s audience is large, heterogeneous and likely to care about this issue in a variety of ways.
On the other hand, a public relations professional might edit this piece to accentuate one side of the topic, as it reaches an audience with a narrower interest. If that professional worked for a parents group, the focus might be more on the “win” for the park and what it means for families in that area. If that professional worked for the construction firm that lost the condominium project, the focus would shift to the “loss” at the council meeting and what the firm planned to do next. In each instance, the vocabulary, the emphasis and the approach will change on the basis of the people these editors wanted to reach with their content.
Editing for an Audience
When it comes to editing, we can easily get lost in the minutiae. “Farther” versus “further,” “that” versus “which” and “who” versus “whom” can pull us deeply into the forest and have us staring at those particular trees. The idea of microediting
is important, and we will discuss that at length later in the text, but if you spend all your time picking at the bark on the tree and ignoring the fact that you’re in a forest, nothing you do will matter. Understanding the big picture starts with understanding your readers and what they demand of you. Here are a few things to keep in mind when you start picking through copy:
Don’t Edit for Yourself
This applies to all media professionals, from newspaper and broadcast reporters to public relations practitioners and social media professionals, and editors serve as both the first and last lines of defense against this problem. When you assign something to a writer, it pays to spend some time discussing what you each think is important in the piece. At this point, you can emphasize your understanding of the audience’s needs and see what the writer has to say on this issue. If you apply this lens early for your writers, they can more easily focus on specific elements of the story they want to tell and understand what to do and why.
When a writer turns in a draft of a piece, you can see how well the audience’s needs are reflected in it and if it needs some fine-tuning. Depending on how much time you have to work on the piece and the availability of the writer, you can dig into the piece and tweak it to best emphasize those audience-centric elements of it. Before publishing the piece, you should work through the questions listed above and see how well the story addresses them. This will give you the chance to make any final corrections you see as necessary or important.
Determine How Your Readers Consume Your Work
Editors have to consider more than just what the content will be, but how it will be consumed. In previous generations, each branch of the media had clear and simple rules for each type of piece it
produced. Newspaper stories published content in column inches
on a printed page, with briefs usually being about 4 inches each and standard news stories sitting between 12 and 14 inches. Press releases ran one to two typed pages, depending on the topic. Advertisements mirrored these needs, with 30-second TV spots and quarter-page print ads.
Today, each of these media disciplines must reach readers on multiple platforms in various forms. Newspaper editors have to consider how a story will read in print, online and on mobile devices. Public relations practitioners now must reach people who are too lazy to scroll past the first screen of an email, while advertisers need to consider everything from sponsored tweets to native advertising. The choices of platforms and approaches can be dizzying and lead editors to revert to the tried and true standards of their old platforms, thus leaving readers disappointed.
The best way to address these problems is to figure out how your readers want the content you provide. Do they read you primarily on mobile devices, thus forcing you to improve your focus and tighten your writing in hopes of enticing them to click for more content? Do they read you in the “dead-tree edition,” culling through paper press releases or turning broadsheet pages of news, thus placing more emphasis on headlines, structure and layout? Do they seek you as a force of habit, showing up at your website or picking up your paper every day? Conversely, do they only read things “pushed” to them through opt-in
functions they clicked at some point in time or via social media connections they trust?
Also, when and where do they consume your content? Is it in a rushed fashion as they head into work, hoping to use what you have to say to spark conversations during the day, or is it on leisurely weekends when they want to plan projects, be entertained or simply decompress? Your goal as an editor is to shape content that works for the readers and gives them what they want from you. If you can do this, you will have a much larger and more engaged audience.
Cater, Don’t Pander, to Your Readers
One of the worst slippery-slope arguments associated with audience centricity is the idea that if we give people what they want, all media outlets will be reduced to showing videos of cats that can play the piano. A clear line exists between audience centricity and pandering to the lowest common denominator, and it is an editor’s job to keep the content on the right side of it.
Pandering media outlets slather clickbait headlines on stories that have nothing to do with the actual content of the piece, solely to gain website traffic. These outlets also feed readers “junk food” like cat videos and ideologically reinforced memes to support the readers’ point of view, regardless of the accuracy of it. The goal here is like a version of an old “me generation” slogan: “The person who dies with the most clicks wins.”
Audience centricity looks at what readers want and need to find a middle ground for the development and transmission of content. This means avoiding press releases that always start with “Company XYZ announces …” or news stories that tell readers, “The city council held a meeting ….” It means digging into what is already there that matters and refocusing it to best serve the audience members in a way they will accept and understand. It means breaking away from tradition that exists simply because it is traditional while still adhering to time-honored values because they matter. You want to develop a relationship with your readers in an honest, valuable and meaningful way. Edit...