audience at Medill
During their first Medill days, graduate students work the streets of Chicago neighborhoods or suburban cities, interviewing and learning about the audiences they have been assigned to target during their intensive first-academic-term introduction to reporting.
The students work in teams, and before they are unleashed to do news reporting in the assigned neighborhoods, they complete and present an extensive report. The report includes demographic and census-type material in addition to personal-interview findings; it is often presented in words, graphs, video and photos describing the audience, its concerns and interests, its media-consumption habits and how it’s best reached.
Audiences are defined by geography, age and a central characteristic that suggests common interest. So, for example: young parents who live in Lakeview; baby boomers in suburban Skokie; employed-but-struggling middle agers in Edgewater or Uptown neighborhoods; millennials in Wicker Park and Bucktown; the rising South Side middle class.
Imagine the different emphases and approaches a reporter might take without at all compromising fundamental journalistic values, when reporting for these very different audiences news of education and taxes, for instance, or personal finance, or leisure and culture, or social services, or even cops and courts.
Understanding audiences and discovering news that is relevant to them, are critical learning objectives during that first academic term, right along with learning the fundamentals of reporting and presenting news in multiple media.
It continues throughout the Medill curriculum, in Evanston and in the Chicago and Washington D.C. newsrooms.
Understanding and engaging audience readers, listeners, viewers, users has always been a central component of publishing success, although when the world was simpler and more local, tacit understanding often sufficed.
Professor Rachel Davis Mersey, an audience-research expert hired in 2008, teaches Medill’s rigorous Audience Insight class, in which students learn how to use and evaluate qualitative and quantitative research from behavioral sciences and other sources, and how to apply it to the practice of journalism.
“The goal every time I teach the class is helping the students understand the audience well enough to craft an editorial product for that audience,” she said.
“I think one of the big mistakes we’ve made with audiences in the past is thinking that we can serve everyone in an audience equally with one product ... One of the big elements of audience insight is pulling journalists away from doing journalistic-level reporting, to what I might call social-science-level reporting,” Mersey said.
Understanding an audience’s interests and information needs, and trying to meet them, does not suggest pandering, however.
Rather, it means establishing a connection and trust, and a refined instinct of what’s important and how it is best communicated.
Mersey said, “I think we are at a critical juncture in the journalism industry right now, and it’s about if we only give what people want, we will have long neglected what people need.”
Content > Distribution > Audience
is obsolete, replaced (or should be replaced!) with audience understanding as the central and starting point for successful journalism, thus:
Audience > Content > Distribution
with continual interaction and engagement a key element of the new model.
Techniques and value of audience understanding, Lavine suggested, should be an element of journalism schools’ curriculum standard.
“First we have the audience. Start with them,” Lavine told the Council. “Stop looking from the inside out, and let’s think about it from the outside in. Because if they don’t come, it doesn’t matter what we create.”
“So, we need to think about the audience and understand that mass is gone. Audiences are targeted,” Lavine said.
Then, summarizing his position and Medill’s approach, Lavine told ACEJMC members that content can be excellent, and content can be exclusive, but without audience understanding, “It won’t work.”
“They will not give you that unrenewable resource, their time. So we must understand who they are and a whole lot more about them. We must understand how to build them and gather them, and we must understand who they are not.
“We must understand all the statistics about them, the census, the studies, the whatever and like any great reporter, who really learned that about their market almost before they began, it ought to be ‘you gotta understand that first, then we’ll let you do a story.’
“Look at all the hard data, and then go out and do qualitative interviews, so you understand where they are, and then you can begin to see if you can connect.”