The Other Half of the News Equation

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The Other Half of the News Equation

By Jaci Clement,

“If you build it, they will come,” may work for ballparks, but it doesn’t work for news.

Maybe it’s because a ballpark is situated in a fixed location, whereas news today mostly resides in a cloud. Maybe, too, it’s because people enjoy going to a ballpark and, well, when’s the last time you heard anybody say they were even remotely looking forward to watching, reading, or listening to the day’s news? And maybe, just maybe, it has something to do with attending a game being a shared experience while the act of news consumption is often a solitary one.

Building and retaining an audience has always been a struggle for any business or organization. That’s not something that dominates headlines, which still tell of a world turned upside down by the pandemic. Of course, how to build an audience isn’t the type of subject matter mainstream media tends to focus on. Life in these times is marked by war, inflation, employment and supply chain disruptions. Politicos gone bad, why winter feels like spring, and how one-percenters are the only ones who can afford to buy eggs these days are the bookmarks in our public conversation.

Heavy times call for heavy news. An argument can be made that the reason our world has gone to pot is that the news fell first. If there was ever any doubt that the strength of our democracy is equal to the strength of America’s news media, look at recent history.

Following this train of thought, it’s easy to see why it’s imperative that the news media rebuild itself. But the hard truth is that, in today’s media landscape, the paradigm demands more than quality news. People who don’t know a news outlet exists have to be able to find it — particularly true of the startup news initiatives happening around the country, along with those nonprofit news organizations that are sprouting up. Many are actually producing exceptional journalism, running deep within a slim vertical of expertise. That poses another problem: Niche media doesn’t pop into the public’s minds when a story breaks, no matter how expert the news outlet. Pointedly: Just because they produce it, doesn’t mean the public thinks to look there.

If the public does know a news outlet exists, they need to remember where it is — a growing challenge as news formats change from print to online, and from cable to over-the-top. There’s an inherent assumption being made that the audience will move with the news outlet’s product. What’s being overlooked? Audiences form habits, and habits die hard.

And there’s something else to consider: While a news outlet may change how it distributes its information (usually to save costs and keep people employed), the question that needs to be asked is, does the new format match up with audience demographics? Online-only news startups being created in areas of the country where people can’t afford broadband, or have limited access to broadband, aren’t a solution for replacing a newspaper that no longer publishes.

Add to the mix the continuous fragmentation of the media landscape, and it’s a small wonder the public is not only confused but hesitant about where to search for news. Search engine optimization and social media postings may get news outlets some additional clicks, but everybody’s playing that same game. And that’s another problem in the news industry: Even when trying something new, they all follow suit. Tactics that are designed to help them stand out to an audience instead have the opposite effect, making them all appear the same.

Where can the public go for quality news in a format that meets their needs? Such a straightforward question isn’t served by such a complicated answer.

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