The year we ask the audience what it needs

“If the lesson to be learnt from the resurgence of journalism during the pandemic is that people do need journalism only on the condition that journalism proves relevant to their everyday lives, then the best way to meet this demand is to ask people what kind of information they need.”

The pandemic has brought to the forefront the importance of two fundamental assets: our healthcare systems and the access to verified and reliable information.

Research published by Statista shows that 44 percent of people worldwide said they’ve spent more time on social media during the pandemic, 45 percent have spent more time watching TV on broadcast channels, while 67 percent have spent more time following news coverage. On top of that, 2020 has seen a resurgence of trust in news sources, according to the Edelman Trust Barometer.

That’s all great, but it doesn’t mean we’ve solved the longstanding problem of rebuilding trust in news. I believe we’re still far from reaching that goal.

Here’s why I fear this might just be a temporary interlude.

We journalists always ask ourselves what are the most important stories for us to report on, but we spend far too little time asking our audiences what it is they want from us. The prejudice that journalists know best is deeply rooted and hard to kill.

The fact is, we don’t know best. This year, we have been, paradoxically, quite lucky: It wasn’t hard to recognize that a global pandemic was something people really wanted to know more about. News happened to be one of the most effective tools to navigate the complexity of the pandemic, and media outlets enjoyed their newly rediscovered key role in society. But let’s not fool ourselves: This honeymoon is not going to last, and we should get ready for what comes next.

Next year, will people need journalism as much as they do today? Data from the pre-pandemic world would suggest that they won’t: 32 percent of people in 2019 actively avoided the news, 28 percent felt worn out by the amount of news, and only 46 percent trusted the news they used themselves, according to the last two editions of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism’s Digital News Report.

During the pandemic, people have been seeking out journalism because they needed to. No big surprise there. But that doesn’t explain why today people trust journalism more than they did in 2019. One way of looking at it is that, in 2020, we actually gave people what they needed — which in turn resulted in a spike in trust. Ultimately, what the comparison between 2019 and 2020 may show is that if journalism responds to people’s needs, people will trust it more.

This year, the sense of isolation caused by lockdown has pushed a lot of people toward online communities to fill the void left by the lack of social interactions. As a consequence, those news outlets committed to both building a community around their news brands and engaging with such communities in a meaningful way have thrived over the past months. Although that isolation will eventually end, engaging with communities will still be the key to success in the post-pandemic world.

If the lesson to be learned from the resurgence of journalism during the pandemic is that people do need journalism — but only on the condition that journalism proves relevant to their everyday lives — then the best way to meet this demand is to ask people what kind of information they need.

At Will Media, an Italian social-first media startup where I lead the editorial team, engaging with and listening to our community is at the very core of our strategy.

Every day we ask our community what they care about and if there’s something they want to know more about the stories we bring to their attention. We always reply to comments and private messages, sometimes using those very messages as the starting point of a new piece of content. Every week, we publish a four-minute video in which we comment on people’s comments to our posts. We publish voice messages from community members who want to raise awareness on social issues they personally experience. We went live on Instagram to chat with members of our community about how they coped with lockdown. We even helped a university student conduct research for her dissertation by sharing a survey and then publishing a video in which we analyzed her findings with her.

By doing all these things, every day we learn something new about the members of our community, which is fundamental to building a strong and long-lasting editorial strategy. And it produces results: In the first year since launch, we have built a 600,000-strong community on Instagram, reached 14 million-plus interactions and 45 million-plus video views, and launched one of the most-listened-to daily podcasts in Italy.

As we head toward 2021 with plenty of work yet to be done, my hope is that more news outlets will join the growing list of organizations that are investing in community-oriented journalism. Let’s make 2021 the year we start to listen to our audiences’ needs. That’s the only way we have a real chance to consolidate and increase the level of trust in the news after the pandemic.

Francesco Zaffarano is editor-in-chief of Will Media.

The pandemic has brought to the forefront the importance of two fundamental assets: our healthcare systems and the access to verified and reliable information.

Research published by Statista shows that 44 percent of people worldwide said they’ve spent more time on social media during the pandemic, 45 percent have spent more time watching TV on broadcast channels, while 67 percent have spent more time following news coverage. On top of that, 2020 has seen a resurgence of trust in news sources, according to the Edelman Trust Barometer.

That’s all great, but it doesn’t mean we’ve solved the longstanding problem of rebuilding trust in news. I believe we’re still far from reaching that goal.

Here’s why I fear this might just be a temporary interlude.

We journalists always ask ourselves what are the most important stories for us to report on, but we spend far too little time asking our audiences what it is they want from us. The prejudice that journalists know best is deeply rooted and hard to kill.

The fact is, we don’t know best. This year, we have been, paradoxically, quite lucky: It wasn’t hard to recognize that a global pandemic was something people really wanted to know more about. News happened to be one of the most effective tools to navigate the complexity of the pandemic, and media outlets enjoyed their newly rediscovered key role in society. But let’s not fool ourselves: This honeymoon is not going to last, and we should get ready for what comes next.

Next year, will people need journalism as much as they do today? Data from the pre-pandemic world would suggest that they won’t: 32 percent of people in 2019 actively avoided the news, 28 percent felt worn out by the amount of news, and only 46 percent trusted the news they used themselves, according to the last two editions of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism’s Digital News Report.

During the pandemic, people have been seeking out journalism because they needed to. No big surprise there. But that doesn’t explain why today people trust journalism more than they did in 2019. One way of looking at it is that, in 2020, we actually gave people what they needed — which in turn resulted in a spike in trust. Ultimately, what the comparison between 2019 and 2020 may show is that if journalism responds to people’s needs, people will trust it more.

This year, the sense of isolation caused by lockdown has pushed a lot of people toward online communities to fill the void left by the lack of social interactions. As a consequence, those news outlets committed to both building a community around their news brands and engaging with such communities in a meaningful way have thrived over the past months. Although that isolation will eventually end, engaging with communities will still be the key to success in the post-pandemic world.

If the lesson to be learned from the resurgence of journalism during the pandemic is that people do need journalism — but only on the condition that journalism proves relevant to their everyday lives — then the best way to meet this demand is to ask people what kind of information they need.

At Will Media, an Italian social-first media startup where I lead the editorial team, engaging with and listening to our community is at the very core of our strategy.

Every day we ask our community what they care about and if there’s something they want to know more about the stories we bring to their attention. We always reply to comments and private messages, sometimes using those very messages as the starting point of a new piece of content. Every week, we publish a four-minute video in which we comment on people’s comments to our posts. We publish voice messages from community members who want to raise awareness on social issues they personally experience. We went live on Instagram to chat with members of our community about how they coped with lockdown. We even helped a university student conduct research for her dissertation by sharing a survey and then publishing a video in which we analyzed her findings with her.

By doing all these things, every day we learn something new about the members of our community, which is fundamental to building a strong and long-lasting editorial strategy. And it produces results: In the first year since launch, we have built a 600,000-strong community on Instagram, reached 14 million-plus interactions and 45 million-plus video views, and launched one of the most-listened-to daily podcasts in Italy.

As we head toward 2021 with plenty of work yet to be done, my hope is that more news outlets will join the growing list of organizations that are investing in community-oriented journalism. Let’s make 2021 the year we start to listen to our audiences’ needs. That’s the only way we have a real chance to consolidate and increase the level of trust in the news after the pandemic.

Francesco Zaffarano is editor-in-chief of Will Media.

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