Putting readers first matters – they are not passive anymore

There is an interesting article by WAN-IFRA’s Cecilia Campbell on the whole issue of online users downloading ad blockers because they are so fed up with online advertising and, as a result, publishers wondering what to do. While Campbell goes into the crux of the problem and provides wide-ranging perspective, what she says towards the end of her piece is quite pertinent: “For all the talk of data, your customers are actual people. They will respond to how you treat them. They may respond to explanations about the cost of good journalism and the value exchange. But first and foremost, they need to know that you’ll protect their interests and that you care about and control what is published on your website, as well as who has access to the underlying data. If we’re to stop more people from resorting to ad blocking, everything must flow from this: trust.”

That the reader is king in today’s world of journalism there is no doubt. An article on the Newspaper Association of America website talks about the rise of the opinion section in newspapers. It says that several news media outlets have recently announced the expansion of their opinion section offerings, even creating new ones, to accompany its current news coverage. These include The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune and The Tennessean. All of them having the “common desire to engage and connect with readers”. The article talks about “the importance of an engaged readership that feels represented and is encouraged to participate”. The publication’s readers are no longer simply ‘consumers’ or customers (the word Campbell uses) – they become active participants in representing the news that matters to them, the article points out. So, in many ways, the wheel has turned full circle.

A recent report by the American Press Institute emphasises the importance of a collaboration between publishers and their audiences.  The key focus of the study, which features feedback and insight from 25 news leaders and innovators, stresses how a strong relationship between journalists and their consumers can help to “produce strong, engaging content that is of value to readers”. Collaboration, the report says, “is not about what your audience can do for you, but what you can do with your audience”.

Monica Guzman, writing for the American Press Institute about the best ways to build audience and relevance by listening to and engaging your community, says people don’t just consume news today; they participate in it. “People have access to vast and varied information. They pursue news on their own time, and on their own terms, connecting with others who share and help satisfy their curiosity about their world. This presents an opportunity for news publishers strained by shrinking resources and growing competition: Now more than ever, journalists can engage their audiences as contributors, advisors, advocates, collaborators and partners.”

An article by Ingrid Cobben on the WAN-IFRA website talks about building a community willing to pay for quality journalism. She provides the example of Danish publication Zetland, which is well on the way to doing so. Cobben says one of the co-founders and the editor-in-chief, Lea Korsgaard, wanted to create a platform that puts readers first, strongly believing that journalistic authority comes from standing among the audience rather than above them. “We consider our readers active not passive. They are more than capable to not only read, but also react, and use our stories out in the world, but also critically capable of giving us ideas, input and new perspectives,” Korsgaard had told the World Editors Forum recently.   

Asked how she was building a strong community, Korsgaard tells Cobben: “A lot of it has to with the tone of voice. It needs to be human, personal, not just a machine talking, so that readers can actually feel that there is someone behind the words. This is so contrary to what we're used to from the traditional news business, where news is written in a very anonymous way. I still think there are good things to say about that, but it doesn't build community.

Food for thought, indeed.


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