Journalism doubles down on user needs

In the last couple years, user needs became one of The Next Big Things in journalism. Lots of researchers and consultants talked about them on Twitter (RIP) and the journalism conference circuit. Some very useful reports were published. Some newsrooms even applied the practice successfully. Terms like “Update me” and “Keep me on trend” were used so often that they no longer needed to be explained every time.

This has been a very positive development! Anything that gets newsrooms to make editorial decisions in a more audience-centric, data-informed manner is a win.

But we’re tinkering on the margins. The user needs framework currently copy and pasted from newsroom to newsroom focuses just on people’s news consumption habits. If we continue to study just the tiny portion of a person’s day that they spend consuming journalism, we will miss innumerable opportunities to weave ourselves into people’s lives.

In 2023, we will become deeply curious about our audience members. We’ll research not just how and why people read and listen to our journalism, but how they spend their days, what they’re trying to accomplish, and what kind of information they are seeking, either knowingly or unknowingly.

In the human-centered design field, this is the difference between studying people’s explicit and implicit needs.

Then we will double down on producing journalism that provides that. Fortunately, the knowledge of how to do this already exists. It builds on more than a decade of practice with change management and analytics.

We will tag stories by these needs and study their performance. We’ll use that information to audit our story mix, identifying the areas where we’re under indexing and rebalancing until the distribution across the needs is right-sized. We’ll analyze referral paths by user need so that we can apply the right distribution strategy to each story. (Smartocto, an editorial analytics company, has published an excellent playbook on this.)

This likely means some tough conversations in 2023 about information people need versus the information we’re used to providing. It also means challenging ourselves to go beyond traditional assignments (“Here’s what two experts say about what just happened”) and instead routinely planning for longer-term coverage that considers different user needs in how those stories are framed.”

For KPCC/LAist, it will mean helping Angelenos discover pockets of Los Angeles that pique their curiosity, helping them connect with others who reflect and validate their experiences, helping them navigate complex and confusing systems to get what they need to survive and thrive, and helping them affect change.

What will it mean for your newsroom?

Ariel Zirulnick is senior editor for community engagement at Southern California Public Radio.

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