Traffic will plummet — and it’ll be ok

“The ‘Trump bump’ is already waning. The question now is: How many of those readers will remain loyal and enter their credit card info again once the sense of alarm that moved them in the first place dissipates?”

American journalists have navigated the last four years by reacting and surviving from one frantic news cycle to the next. Barely capable of reflection, we’ve grown used to operating under the constant rush of adrenaline provided by a president extremely effective at hijacking our attention.

With most people experiencing news fatigue, 2021 will force newsrooms to leave behind this frenetic grind of constant reaction. We will need to relearn how to engage with readers in a meaningful way, reevaluating our priorities, diversifying our editorial offering beyond politics and hard news and providing value to our audiences (plural).

We’ll be forced to do so, because we’ll see a dip in readership.

Trump is an extremely polarizing figure and his actions have consistently triggered in readers the basic emotions humans are programmed to react to: hate (for some), love (for others), outrage, surprise. These attributes tend to activate readers or, as we would have said a few years ago, help stories “go viral.”

For organizations that rely on scale, the president, with his late-night tweets and his Friday night news drops, helped to create a traffic bubble that contributed to meeting goals. Of course, the future won’t be any less complex after he’s gone, and we still face colossal challenges that require journalistic scrutiny and that will attract readers (hello, climate change, systematic racism, global pandemic). But that baseline of readers addicted to Trump’s show may soon be gone.

For newsrooms with subscriber or membership models, things might look a little different. The president declared the press “the enemy of the people,” and troves of readers came to the rescue, believing that they should support the media’s role as a watchdog. The “Trump bump” is already waning.

The question now is: How many of those readers will remain loyal and enter their credit card info again once the sense of alarm that moved them in the first place dissipates?

If/when numbers go down, panic will surely follow. There’ll be meetings and brainstorms about “counterprogramming.” This will be a good thing: It’ll force our newsrooms to diversify, reevaluate their ethos, and interrogate themselves about their specific mission and value proposition for the public and the communities they serve.

Audience teams will be particularly well equipped to undertake this transformative effort, as they operate on the frontlines of the relationship with readers. These editors and reporters will borrow product design methodologies (user research, prototyping, testing, data analysis) and apply them to come up with well-informed editorial strategies that don’t rely solely on instinct and whim.

They will also continue to interpret audience data about readers’ behavior and translate it into products, innovative storytelling formats, and new areas of coverage that provide value or meet their needs, in whatever form it is: liveblogs to follow complex breaking news, explanatory story types that provide context and service-oriented information, interactives and visual pieces that delight and surprise, intimate pop-up newsletters around seasonal topics or news events.

None of this will be possible without a humbling and radical exercise of empathy towards readers. Going back to pet projects that we deem to be the only True Journalism That Matters probably won’t be enough. We’ll need to incorporate the act of listening to audiences to our workflows and assignment processes.

This will take a number of forms: conducting surveys, analyzing traffic data, paying attention to Google Trends, incorporating user-research methodologies, keeping our quintessential personas in mind when assigning and writing stories. Sometimes the listening will become quite literal — forms and other audience engagement initiatives that allow us to communicate directly with readers, learn what they want, and determine how we can serve them.

Open your Chartbeat: They’re already letting you know.

María Sánchez Díez is an operations editor at The Washington Post.

American journalists have navigated the last four years by reacting and surviving from one frantic news cycle to the next. Barely capable of reflection, we’ve grown used to operating under the constant rush of adrenaline provided by a president extremely effective at hijacking our attention.

With most people experiencing news fatigue, 2021 will force newsrooms to leave behind this frenetic grind of constant reaction. We will need to relearn how to engage with readers in a meaningful way, reevaluating our priorities, diversifying our editorial offering beyond politics and hard news and providing value to our audiences (plural).

We’ll be forced to do so, because we’ll see a dip in readership.

Trump is an extremely polarizing figure and his actions have consistently triggered in readers the basic emotions humans are programmed to react to: hate (for some), love (for others), outrage, surprise. These attributes tend to activate readers or, as we would have said a few years ago, help stories “go viral.”

For organizations that rely on scale, the president, with his late-night tweets and his Friday night news drops, helped to create a traffic bubble that contributed to meeting goals. Of course, the future won’t be any less complex after he’s gone, and we still face colossal challenges that require journalistic scrutiny and that will attract readers (hello, climate change, systematic racism, global pandemic). But that baseline of readers addicted to Trump’s show may soon be gone.

For newsrooms with subscriber or membership models, things might look a little different. The president declared the press “the enemy of the people,” and troves of readers came to the rescue, believing that they should support the media’s role as a watchdog. The “Trump bump” is already waning.

The question now is: How many of those readers will remain loyal and enter their credit card info again once the sense of alarm that moved them in the first place dissipates?

If/when numbers go down, panic will surely follow. There’ll be meetings and brainstorms about “counterprogramming.” This will be a good thing: It’ll force our newsrooms to diversify, reevaluate their ethos, and interrogate themselves about their specific mission and value proposition for the public and the communities they serve.

Audience teams will be particularly well equipped to undertake this transformative effort, as they operate on the frontlines of the relationship with readers. These editors and reporters will borrow product design methodologies (user research, prototyping, testing, data analysis) and apply them to come up with well-informed editorial strategies that don’t rely solely on instinct and whim.

They will also continue to interpret audience data about readers’ behavior and translate it into products, innovative storytelling formats, and new areas of coverage that provide value or meet their needs, in whatever form it is: liveblogs to follow complex breaking news, explanatory story types that provide context and service-oriented information, interactives and visual pieces that delight and surprise, intimate pop-up newsletters around seasonal topics or news events.

None of this will be possible without a humbling and radical exercise of empathy towards readers. Going back to pet projects that we deem to be the only True Journalism That Matters probably won’t be enough. We’ll need to incorporate the act of listening to audiences to our workflows and assignment processes.

This will take a number of forms: conducting surveys, analyzing traffic data, paying attention to Google Trends, incorporating user-research methodologies, keeping our quintessential personas in mind when assigning and writing stories. Sometimes the listening will become quite literal — forms and other audience engagement initiatives that allow us to communicate directly with readers, learn what they want, and determine how we can serve them.

Open your Chartbeat: They’re already letting you know.

María Sánchez Díez is an operations editor at The Washington Post.

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