Journalism is community

“Who is consuming our work? Is this audience different from who we would expect? Are there other people who would benefit from our work, and how do we reach them?”

2017 will be the year newsrooms find out who their audiences (actually) are.

geetika-rudraThe Internet is a complicated business tool. It can reduce millions of people to a singular identity, or amplify a single person’s unique voice to millions of people. An advertiser on Facebook can identify with great accuracy older males living in North America; a single vlogger can reach millions of faceless people on their YouTube channel. The two approaches to business development seem oppositional, but they’re actually two sides of the same coin: Successful business development models for online businesses cast a wide net, attracting a large number of people, and then figure out who those people are and what they care about. It’s this data that is monetized and constructs the backbone of online business models. The key to running a successful online business is being able to grow an audience to a mass scale while investing in learning about the same audience on a micro scale.

A newsroom that publishes its work on the Internet for profit is an online business. And here is where newsrooms enjoy the greatest advantage of all online businesses: Community is built in journalism’s DNA.

When we talk about developing business models and audiences, what we’re really talking about is building community. It’s in the reporter who lives in the same town she covers. It’s in the reporter who cultivates relationships with sources for many, many years. It’s in the production team that embeds itself with a military unit on the other side of the world. The common denominator is evident: Journalists working directly in their community, which serves as a place where journalism is both created and consumed.

The Internet has made this difficult. Journalists are farther than they have ever been from their communities. We cover events in places thousands of miles away, without ever leaving our desks. We interview sources we sometimes never meet in person. Sometimes we just paste together snippets of social media posted by people whose real identities we never confirm. Moreover, whatever we publish onto the Internet gets lost in the digital ether without ensuring that it reached not just a large enough audience, but the right audience.

All of this can be quickly labelled “bad journalism,” but these practices will not change unless the market pressures that enable them change.

So how do we get out of the disastrous state that journalism is in? As we near the end of 2016, it’s hard for me to not get bogged down in all the internal setbacks our industry has faced. We’ve failed to report on the concerns a significant number of Americans care about. These people now mistrust us, “the mainstream media,” and have turned to politicians and institutions that are not bound by truth but will very happily speak to them. We’ve failed to compete against information designed to get clicks, not to inform. Now the line between fake news and real news has been so badly blurred the average news consumer cannot tell the difference.

What do we do? We return to our community. Data analytics that have been mastered by companies like Facebook and Google will help us bridge the digital divide between journalists and the communities we serve. It’s imperative that when newsrooms partner with social media companies to distribute our work that we demand equal access to the data these companies collect on our audiences. It is also more important that newsrooms invest in creating in-house data teams designed to collect and analyze information that will help newsroom leaders answer the following questions:

  • Who is consuming our work?
  • Is this audience different from who we would expect?
  • Are there other people who would benefit from our work, and how do we reach them?
  • What issues and concerns do our audience need information about?
  • What is the best way we can present our work so audiences can easily consume and understand it?

This data is crucial for establishing the value of our audiences to potential advertisers and future sources of revenue. It is also crucial to ensuring that our work is accessible to the people who need it. And it is crucial to ensure that, as journalists, we are all doing our jobs. Journalism took a hard hit in 2016. Let’s return to our roots, and rebuild from the ground up.

Geetika Rudra is a data analyst at Dataminr.

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