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Seriously: What do you do for people?

“We talk constantly about pageviews and engagement rates, circulation stats and Nielsen ratings, subscriptions and donation rates, but all that happens when we successfully offer something to human beings that is of value to them.”

In 2019, we will be asking: “What do we do for people?” And I don’t mean writing some piece-of-corporate-hogwash mission statement full of buzzwords no one understands. I mean we’ll be getting clear about what it is you give your readers, listeners, or viewers. Journalism outlets, journalists, and everyone who works for an organization that does journalism needs to know what they are doing for people.

We talk constantly about pageviews and engagement rates, circulation stats and Nielsen ratings, subscriptions and donation rates, but all that happens when we successfully offer something to human beings that is of value to them. Knowing what we do for people also keeps us clear about why we are doing what we are doing. It helps us know whether we are doing things for the right reasons.

My team uses the NPR One algorithm to personalize and localize podcasts and public radio content on a variety of platforms, from smart speakers to cable boxes. Personalization gets a bad rap for creating filter bubbles, but editorial algorithms can also be used to try to widen people’s horizons, as well by exposing them to other points of view. The team that works on the NPR One systems is very clear that we use the algorithm to get our listeners a blend of localized news and a dose of serendipity that expands their understanding of their community, country, and world.

When I was in charge of content at Michigan Radio, we thought about our role as helping people “understand their state.” It was a literal statement about helping people understand what was happening in the state of Michigan, and a metaphorical statement about helping them understand their personal state as a citizen of the world. We chose what to cover, what to air, and what community conversations to participate in based on whether it would in fact help people understand their state.

Likewise, NPR, PRX, and a number of member stations are working on a project called “Culture of Journalism.” It’s an effort to ensure that everyone in public media is adhering to common ethics and values. But ultimately it’s really about encouraging stations and journalism creators in public media to do things because it helps create trustworthy journalism for our audience, rather than because it feathers our personal or organizational nests.

Our industry faces so many challenges — the political powers that be, financial pressures as our business models evolve, technology shifts, and new competition. In 2019, I’d argue the most powerful tool we have is knowing very clearly what it is we are trying to do for our audience. That way they too will be clear about what they can expect and value from us. Something that becomes even more important as people get their information by asking Alexa, Google, Siri, or Bixby for it.

Tamar Charney is managing editor of NPR One.

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