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Nieman Journalism Lab
Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

Think like the audience

“If an article page was a place that did not offer us 300 navigation choices and 25 butt-ugly ads, but instead provided several appealing doorways to a diverse selection of high-quality content, what would be the result?”

Put yourself in the shoes of the audience. This is the real challenge for journalists in 2013.

I’m not sure if journalists will do it or not, so this is not exactly a prediction. I do know it’s necessary. It’s more necessary than a business model, because if no one wants what you’re selling, you won’t be able to sell anything.

It’s not the people who come to the newspaper website every morning that journalists need to worry about. They’re coming no matter what. And it’s not the people who already subscribe to Nicholas Kristof on Facebook or Anderson Cooper on Twitter. The news junkies will seek out the news, even on a slow news day.

If you talk to people with no connection to the journalism business, they’ll usually tell you they get news online.

They’re not lying.

But they don’t take the same approach to news that a news junkie takes. They’re not trying to stay up to date on Syria, or the fiscal cliff. They may be following closely everything relevant to their fantasy football. Lots of college students regularly check sites such as IGN for news about video games. These are their newsgathering behaviors.

If you’re a journalist and you’re sneering right now, this is what I’m talking about. Put yourself in the shoes of the audience. Syria is far away, and the fiscal cliff is something over which the average citizen has no control.

Then consider that for a few days in mid-December 2012, people all over the world searched for news about a small town in Connecticut where more than two dozen human beings, most of them children, were shot and killed in an elementary school.

We know that both Google and social networks bring people to news sites. We all follow links that sound interesting or that promise to amuse us. When we search, we have all kinds of reasons, including to find information about something we heard teased on TV for the 11 o’clock news.

And then what? Put yourself in the shoes of the audience.

When people arrive at that page, if it’s on a traditional news site (mobile or web), what other kinds of content are available to them? Will they find themselves getting lured in to some other interesting stories? Usually, no. The content they came for will be surrounded by repulsive ads and lists of random “latest news” headlines.

I’ve been thinking a lot about single-article sales and small Internet publications and subcompact publishing. If an article page was a place that did not offer us 300 navigation choices and 25 butt-ugly ads, but instead provided several appealing doorways to a diverse selection of high-quality content, what would be the result?

What if instead of that hideous local real estate ad, there was a gorgeous photo, and clicking it took us to a wonderful photojournalism story? And what if the photo story was a teaser for a longer story (with more great photos) that you could download (in multiple formats) for a dollar?

Put yourself in the shoes of the audience.

Mindy McAdams is a professor at the University of Florida, where she teaches courses about online journalism.