By Catherine Woodiwiss
Last fall I was part of a gathering for solutions journalists from around the globe who focus on stories about problem-solving. The term “solutions journalism” sounds positive, but this form of journalism isn’t focused on feel-good stories or “fluff” pieces. Instead, these stories look for what people are doing about a problem and evaluate whether these attempted solutions are working or not, for whom, and why.
At the Solutions Journalism Summit, I spent one lunch session chatting with a writer who is building a health and parenting newsletter for her regional readership. “I’m creating something I really believe has value,” she told me. “But—does it?” She questioned. “I can’t really tell.”
People were reading her newsletter—thanks to increasingly sophisticated analytics tools, journalists and publications can gather a lot of data. She could see who was reading, which newsletter they opened, how much of it they read, how many times, at what times of day, on what platform, and whether they passed it on to others.
But the data wasn’t telling her why they were reading her newsletter—or what impact, if any, it was having on them.
Publications tend to have clear and thoughtful answers to the why of their product: “What are our ideals about the importance of reporting on the state of the world?” and “How is our content unique from other outlets?”
But these same publications often can’t answer the why of their audience:
- What do our readers need from journalism?
- In what way do they rely on us to meet that need?
- How do we know?
- Is our publication demonstrably changing our readers’ perspectives and behavior?
- Again: How do we know?
For an industry that describes itself as a service, this inability to meaningfully evaluate its own usefulness is a significant miss.
Business-minded editors do try and capture insights about reader preferences directly, via surveys asking people what they like and want more of. But here they run into another problem:
“What people say they value is frequently different from how they behave.”
This is why understanding behavior, not preference, is so critical. A service delivers something of value that people cannot provide for themselves. In a world of unlimited news aggregators and user-driven content on social media, media outlets need a clear answer to what their service actually provides. The most effective way to get this answer is not just to ask readers what they value, but to observe it in action.
Say you’re the publisher of a local news outlet that wants to provide valuable information for your city readership. You’ve noticed that in times of crisis—like recent COVID-19 spikes in your area—engagement with your content rises, and you seem to be serving the interests of the community. But the surge of engagement on social media doesn’t translate to your homepage, or to your other non-COVID-related articles. You know people are interacting with your coverage of the virus—and you believe on the whole your publication provides a service to the community. But you’re not sure whether the people who most need your Coronavirus coverage are able to access it, or whether it’s helping residents make wise decisions. Moreover, you don’t have much insight into whether your “regular,” non-crisis news is providing any service at all. You wonder how you can make sure you’re addressing all three questions.
A traditional approach would go something like this:
- Promote COVID-19 stories with the highest engagement rate
- Make some of these stories accessible by taking them out from behind a paywall
- Track engagement on social
- Assign more stories like your top-performing pieces
- Rinse and repeat
But a service designed approach would go more like this:
- Start by interviewing multiple readers, ideally representing a key range of behaviors and demographics, about their needs, values, and “pain points” around local news
- Follow them in their daily routines to see what motivates them to check the news, the way they access it and why
- What they are looking for by checking it
- How checking it makes them feel
- How engaging with it changes behavior (either immediately or in the near term)
- What other services, platforms, or publications they are engaging with while they access your content
Above all, ask a lot of questions. The resulting insights from readers might—and usually do—disrupt conventional wisdom. Instead of collecting data points about specific story topics, you may hear things like:
- A reader doesn’t trust “the news”—but they do share stories when they feel connected to the content or the author.
- Most readers don’t want to pay for your publication—but some of them do pay for other kinds of services your outlet provides, like real-time data, complex problem-analysis, fact-checked history, and indexed sources.
- Some readers can’t pay for your publication—but they nevertheless rely on its coverage in times of crisis and disaster.
With these insights, your publishing team is now in a good position to ask:
- How do our outlets establish reader trust and familiarity through the voices and content we feature?
- How do we feature more voices that our readers already trust?
- How do we get news to all readers who need it—in a way that they can access—regardless of cost?
- How do we make our in-house knowledge available to other institutions and industries that could benefit from it?
- How do we provide the same degree of real-time, inclusive, need-to-know information that people are relying on now in times of disaster, to other ongoing issues of civic importance?
Framing these questions as a matter of “how” will allow your outlet to immediately begin to try to answer them—by building ideas and testing them to see what works.
Look at these “how do we’s”—What could you build?
How do our services establish reader trust and familiarity through the voices we feature?
- Your social media editor could tweet in the first person.
- Your reporters could take over our publications’ Twitter and livestream during their reporting.
- Each new reporter that joins the staff could answer readers’ questions about themselves.
- You could include an “ask the reporter” button on every story (and in every Insta story)—reader-submitted questions for the writer to publicly answer.
How do we feature more voices that our readers already trust?
- You could hire more writers from groups that are historically underrepresented in your local government, media, and other points of influence.
- You could rely on and feature “citizen journalists” reporting issues in real-time.
- You could hire people that have deep networks in your city and put them through journalistic training, versus hiring on trained journalists with shallow or no ties to the city.
How do we get news to all readers who need it, in a way that they can access, regardless of cost?
- You could partner with local caregivers, social worker services, community halls, houses of worship, libraries, shelters, and hospitals to provide on-site access to your publication for free.
- You could develop breaking news alerts and information bundles for other platforms your readers use (Reddit? TikTok? Nextdoor?) or for local “influencers” to share.
- You could provide your publication in multiple languages, and add closed-captioning and voice text.
How do we make our in-house knowledge available to other institutions and industries that could benefit from it?
- You could bundle your deep, accumulated expertise on city issues for paying subscribers, including the government, universities, philanthropies, and businesses.
All of this from a few insights into your readers’ behavior!
This is the process of service design—a methodology that centers around users, and synthesizes their behaviors and motivations, in an attempt to creatively solve for their needs. Ironically, this process is similar to how journalists develop their stories. It only requires a simple shift for outlets to adopt a service design methodology for their content as a whole. Readers are counting on it.