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Newsrooms will prioritize audience needs

“Shouldn’t sources and communities be able to read stories that are written about them?”

The dominant mindset in media is that journalists are the ultimate arbiters of information and know best what stories to tell and how to find them. And despite leaps and bounds in technology, newsrooms sometimes offer audiences limited options when presenting complex stories, like a long-form text story or audio episode. But there are encouraging signs that this is changing on a number of fronts, and that even more progress will be made in 2019.

There have been changes in user experience that give readers more options about how to digest information, acknowledging that not all readers have time or patience to read a 6,000-word story, for example. The New York Times now produces shorter explainers for some of its long-form pieces, like its Trump family tax investigation and its new Les Moonves investigation. Earlier this year, the Guardian U.S. Mobile Innovation Lab produced a one-episode podcast that allows the reader to receive links and images in sync with audio to explore the content both visually and auditorily. This month, the Desert Sun published a two-year-long investigation in which it asked readers how much time they have and give them different content options based on the number of minutes it will take to consume them. More user-friendly experiences are on the horizon as newsrooms recognize different content consumption habits.

User experience also includes making relevant content available to non-English speakers. Shouldn’t sources and communities be able to read stories that are written about them? Some newsrooms are recognizing this, and translating stories that affect immigrant communities or foreign countries. While this adds additional time and costs to the reporting process, it’s important to make sure our journalism reaches the people who need the information the most.

Audiences are increasingly becoming an integral part of the reporting process, thanks in part to a reimagining of audience engagement and evangelizing by companies like Hearken and Groundsource. This year, media outlets from Vox to Reveal executed crowd-powered projects that rely on audiences to fuel reporting. And some places, like WBEZ’s Curious City and start-up Outlier Media, depend on audiences to guide the direction of their reporting. At ProPublica, listening to the public is the heart of how our engagement team works. For example, this year my colleagues reported a story on layoffs of senior employees at IBM, which they uncovered by asking readers over the age of 50 to tell us their stories about discrimination in the workplace. The project I manage, Documenting Hate, is largely driven by tips submitted from the public to ProPublica and our coalition of more than 160 newsrooms. More journalists will incorporate audiences into the beginning of the reporting process — and not just the end, as the consumer.

Finally, this year has seen continued experimentation in how to involve audiences directly in reporting. Jay Rosen’s Membership Puzzle Project launched the Join the Beat initiative, in which 11 journalists are sourcing knowledge and participation from audiences through a “networked beat.” Rosen is also working on launching The Correspondent, the American version of a Dutch media company fully funded by members. Those members are a central part of the reporting process, and reporters ask them to share their expertise and experience around specific topics.

Given all the progress made this year, I hope we see even more audience-centric strategies next year, from more creative tl;dr solutions for longform to incorporating the public into the reporting process. With all of the excellent work to take inspiration from, newsrooms should think about audience needs as part of their overall strategy and continue to incorporate engagement efforts into their reporting workflows.

Rachel Glickhouse is partner manager for ProPublica’s Documenting Hate project.

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