Spotlight shining down on blue theater audience seating.
Spotlight shining down on blue theater audience seating.

I thought it was an obvious bow to tie around my presentation to an INMA New Delhi conference earlier this month about what it will take to become multimedia news publishers tied increasingly to consumer behaviour: Start rewarding “relevance” over “quality” in the culture of your company, notably the newsroom.

The line represented 15 seconds — or one-half of 1% — of the 45-minute presentation. Yet it represented 50% of the questions that followed and 100% of the emotion. And the emotion carried over to the Delhi conference’s hallways for the next 24-plus hours.

Why is being relevant to the audience such a sin for journalism?

A common mistake from newsrooms worldwide is aspiring to be The New York Times. I hear this weekly from INMA members. That may be a benchmark, but that likely isn’t your lot in life. The New York Times is an aspirational model not just because it produces quality journalism in the abstract; it’s relevant because it connects quality journalism with quality target audiences.

Success to a publisher-owned newsroom in 2012 is about:

    • The reach of your target audience.


  • And the level of engagement of the audience you have.

To define success requires an honest appraisal of whom your brand aims to reach and adopting metrics across platforms that can be boiled down to a transparent dashboard or napkin.

One of my questioners in New Delhi scoffed at the idea of managing for relevance, equating it to management by the numbers. I answered with a question: Do newsrooms want to be disconnected artists or make a difference in the lives of the communities they serve?

He was exasperated at my answer. He struggled to find the words to retort, as if I was speaking another language or was from another planet. Surely, I had just cursed in church.

I gave the metaphorical example of a Midwest United States regional daily, facing cutbacks and tough choices, running a long staff-written article about “Trekking Through Zimbabwe.” This was designed to be an example of ill-focused, irrelevant, and poorly prioritised allocation of journalism resources. To which the South Asian editor replied how wonderful that Americans are exposed to culture outside their normal comfort zone.

And herein lies the disconnect.

There are 10,000-plus daily newspaper titles in the world. Each plays its part in society, but not all are the same or equal. They do not all homogenously produce the same content, nor are they targeting the same audience — not generically, not geographically. Yet that sameness is the organising template of journalism, and that sameness diminishes the relevance of so many newspapers each day.

In most countries worldwide, there are two distinguishing prisms of newspapers. Each genre has a very clear target market that defines their relevance.

  1. National dailies vs. regional dailies

    The regional daily is about filling 100% of the regional space and deferring to national dailies’ news of national and international interest (and vice versa).

    In the United States, regional dailies in major metropolitan areas historically served as quasi-national newspapers — very blurred, very dual roles between global and local. They always reached for “quality,” often manifested in awards within their national club of journalism. Since the Internet’s advent in the 1990s, these major regional dailies have suffered the indignation of accelerated circulation declines primarily because their generic global content was the same or similar to what consumers could increasingly find online. They were less relevant each day they served up this same model of journalism and are only now starting to change.

    The New York Times didn’t have this challenge because it was taking high-end readers off the top of each local market nationwide. Smaller regional dailies and weeklies didn’t have this challenge because they were already focused on their locally minded markets.

    2. Quality dailies vs. popular dailies

    The quality daily is aimed at aspirational, high-end, educated, middle- and upper-class readers, while popular dailies are aimed at blue-collar readers. This class distinction in audience targeting exists in almost every country in the world — except the United States.

    Relevance got lost in the big middle of newspapers nebulously pursuing “quality”: major regional dailies. In trying to be all things to all people (not targeting their efforts), they continued to try and cover their local communities and the world. And they constantly struggled between their high-brow nature and occasionally “popular” impulses.

What we got from these tensions was a newspaper stuck in the middle — the absolute last place any company, brand, or industry wants to be in the mind of the consumer.

Newsrooms should aspire to something greater than a 1930 textbook on journalism saving the world. If you want to save journalism in this titanic age, prioritise relevance in story selection and news architecture.

Inattention to audience development will assure journalism will have an audience that is elite, quality — and tiny.