Why journalism doesn’t have an one-size-fits-all audience

Think of journalism and your audience like this: if you would design a pajama for someone, would you make the same pajama for an 80-year old woman as for a 15-year-old teenager? Maybe the color could be the same, but not in size and style, there would already be a difference. How is this comparable to the news?

You could argue that you’re in this world to make the one-size-fits-all. Everybody needs information, right? But still, consider this: even if the news were pajamas, are people satisfied with a one-size-fits-all pajama or do they prefer the pajama that fits their body best? Compare that pajama with your news subject and ask yourself again: would you tell your story the same way to an 80-year-old woman as to a 15-year-old teenager? Exactly your audience is key and that’s why the teenager and grandmother don’t wear the same pajamas. Or experience news the same way.

Hackastory participants talking with the target audience of Dutch broadcaster KRO NCRV

Who are you?

We believe, understanding media no longer means talking about print versus digital or desktop versus mobile. How people behave is the new way of thinking about media in the digital world. It all starts with this simple but complex question: Who is your audience? We ask this question regularly in our training. A few answers we received from journalists and newsrooms we worked with:


“The whole society”

“General public”

“Active readers”

“Every citizen in this city/region/country”

We told the story to our designers. They were flabbergasted. That couldn’t be right. “You’d think it’s only common sense that you know who you’re writing for, right?”, they said. I thought about this. In journalism it’s not, but if you think about it, that’s strange. Why put all this effort and energy in a story when you’re not sure if anyone will read, see or listen to it? That keeps on surprising us, every day. The reason designers wouldn’t want to work without some tangible knowledge of who their potential user is, is because the result should have the right fit for that user. Chasing clicks and views only leads to creating quantity, while we know there’s a big need for quality. Don’t you agree you should invest more in having a better understanding of what actually supports your audience in this world? That’s why your audience really is key.

Blindfolded journalists

Our co-founder Nienke walked onto the stage of Latam Chequea blindfolded last week. Guided by one of the journalists from Chequeado she found her way to the stage. She asked her audience:

“How would you feel if I continue my presentation like this?”

Many of the journalists present responded: ‘impersonal’, ‘ignored’, ‘disconnected’. Although Nienke had quite some knowledge and insights to share about design thinking and audience first, the distance created by the blindfold was not appreciated. Did she know what the people in front of her were doing? No. More and more research is proving that making human connections is essential to a healthy online relationship. Thriving platforms invest in just that: understanding their communities interest, needs, challenges and obstacles. You need to go beyond analytics, truly understand what works for your audience in a personal context. Nienke removed her blindfold. There they were: the journalists and editors in chief from the media organizations from all around Latin-America attending the congress. So take of your blindfold and see who’s in front of you, listening, watching and reading your content. What are they dealing with? In our last newsletter, we had 5 must-reads of cases who found solutions for this.

Let’s thrive again

Sometimes we do think we know our audience. Most of the time that’s when people talk about the stereotypical news consumer: often we think of them either lazy or not so smart or attentive. Sounds familiar? And I’m honest, I’m guilty of it too. It’s in our nature to assume things. But how can you constructively inform people with complex stories and information every single day if you don’t understand them? Or think of them this way? How can you thrive in this world that is dominated by individualism and exclusivity when you actually don’t know them? The answer, in my opinion: take of the blindfold. News companies are struggling to survive and one of the most important reasons is that they absolutely don’t know what the value is they offer the reader. Or, in other words: what the reader considers valuable in your reporting. We have created a world where people want to be seen, known, heard and accepted. People are done with being treated like ‘just some customer’. If you feel this digital world is overwhelming, you have a 100% chance that’s the same for your audience. Our suggestion is to think of the typical news consumer as an intelligent being that maybe is struggling with the information jungle. How could you help?

Let’s go future-proof

Moral of the story: it’s not online first, it’s audience first! Don’t start writing and don’t start engaging if you haven’t got a clue who you are doing it for. We have three tips to become the future-proof journalist your audience appreciates:

  1. Start with analyzing your data in a smart way. Don’t only look at the single clicks and views – because it’s not about traffic like Hackastory founder Albertine Piels said in her last blog. Instead, try to find where your audience mainly comes from (geographics), understand who you are reaching and what device they use the most (mobile, desktop or maybe your app).

  2. How did you get to know your friends? By talking to them right? Don’t stand on the sideline. If you’re already out there to interview someone or to report a match, ask some people if they read the stories of your newsroom and why they do or don’t. Online tools just give you another format, but your audience will give you feedback on what actually works.

  3. Don’t go chasing ghosts. Why try to become friends with people who don’t want to be your friend? Find the people that already like you, your returning visitors, maybe they can change the minds of others.
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