Before digitalization, journalists didn’t have to think about their audiences as much as they do now. But now that digital information is a commodity, with a few major platforms controlling its distribution, audience loyalty has become a matter of survival.
MUNICH – When a local radio station in Charlotte, North Carolina started a podcasting competition in its community, it was prepared for many contingencies, except one: that the response would overwhelm the station’s server. The initiative was aimed at increasing on-air diversity, and tens of thousands of people wanted in. Groups and individuals from all walks of life submitted more than 370 ideas for podcasts, and 33,000 listeners logged on to vote for them. What started as a one-time experiment will now be a regular feature.
Journalism has always suffered from a lack of diversity. Demographically uniform newsrooms have been producing uniformly homogeneous content for decades. And while editors around the world have increasingly recognized that this is a problem, too little has been done to address it.
One reason, ironically, is a preoccupation with digital change. “There has been so much focus on digital transformation in recent years, the question of diversity has had to stand aside,” explains Olle Zachrison of the Swedish public broadcaster Sveriges Radio, in a study comparing diversity efforts in the United Kingdom, Sweden, and Germany. And yet, as the newsroom in Charlotte discovered, diversity is not just an added bonus; it is at the very core of audience engagement today.
In explaining the business ethos of the digital age, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has argued that it is all about “customer obsession as opposed to competitor obsession.” For the media, then, the guiding principle should be “audience first.” And that means using data to understand and cater better to it.
Not long ago, editorial choices were guided mostly by gut feelings and assumptions, whereas now they are often informed by analytical metrics and revealed truths about audience behavior. Some of these revelations are uncomfortable. Editors can no longer fool themselves about their journalism’s real-world impact. They now know that even the best stories tend to reach just a fraction of their hoped-for audience.
Complicating matters further, newsrooms have discovered that demand can peak at times when they have no new offerings, or when what they’re serving is not what consumers are seeking. In surveys like the Digital News Report, respondents often complain that the media offer too much negativity and volume, and too little explanation and relevant coverage.
Before digitalization, journalists didn’t have to think about their audiences as much as they do now. Newspapers were money-printing machines – the advertising dollars poured in regardless of what would now be called “content.” Likewise, public-service media faced almost no competition. But now that digital information is a commodity, with a few major platforms controlling its distribution, audience loyalty has become a matter of survival.
Many newsrooms were entirely unprepared for this new reality. They don’t even know who their potential new customers are, let alone how to reach them and win their trust. The problem is not just that newsroom homogeneity results in an incomplete view of the world and of the reading/listening public. It is that even when “outsiders” do land a job in this kind of environment, they tend to adapt to the dominant culture rather than challenge it. As a result, newsrooms remain ill equipped to reach out to new audiences.
The lack of diversity in the media has actually worsened in recent decades. Back in the heyday of local news, newsrooms were no less white or male, but being a journalist at least didn’t require a university degree—only a willingness to dive in and chase leads. Yet as the industry became concentrated more in big cities and employment prospects elsewhere diminished, education became yet another entry barrier. While the better-educated candidates moved up to higher-profile jobs, many others left the profession altogether.
In keeping with the industrial society of the time, the occupational model that followed from these changes was hierarchical. As with teachers and their pupils, preachers and their congregations, and experts and the lay public, education conferred status and authority upon journalists. The public was a passive recipient of information, not an engaged participant in a broader conversation.
Clinging to this hierarchical structure is now a recipe for failure. The digital world of information is one of choice and abundance, but also of considerable confusion about what is true and false. Trust is a news organization’s most valuable asset, and the task for journalists is both to challenge and inspire their audience, and to invite conversations among them.
That can’t happen unless journalism represents the society in which it is operating. Unfortunately, a recent global survey of media leaders finds that while editors see progress toward gender diversity, much more must be done to achieve racial and political diversity, as well as a balance between “urban” and “rural” backgrounds. The most likely reason for this failure is that industry leaders continue to regard the digital transformation as a matter of technology and process, rather than of talent and human capital.
Fortunately, the digital transformation represents an opportunity. As Jeff Jarvis of the City University of New York explains, industry leaders should “Try listening to, valuing, and serving the people and communities who were long ignored and left unserved by our old industry, mass media.” All news organizations should take Jarvis’s advice—and not just because it is the right thing to do. Their own survival depends on it.
Alexandra Borchardt is a senior research associate at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford