What local content will really drive audience engagement?

By Steve Gray

Morris Communications

Augusta, Georgia, USA


How do you define the mission and purpose of local reporting?

Cover the news? Hold institutions accountable? Maintain a well-informed citizenry? Hold up a mirror to the community? “Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable?

Search around the Web for statements of journalism’s purpose and you’ll find all of the above, and more like them.

And there’s a lot of anxiety these days about the present and future of this mission. With local advertising and circulation revenues spiraling steadily downward, and with newsrooms shrinking along a parallel line, two things are evident.

Local readers want solutions to their everyday problems.
Local readers want solutions to their everyday problems.

Whatever the mission of local reporting is:

  1. A lot less of it is happening now.

  2. Even less will be happening in the future.

In many places in this business, the central question seen these days is how to drive revenue from new sources so we can keep supporting the functions of journalism that are critical to a free society.

To an extent, I buy that. But there’s also something seriously misguided about it.

It assumes the content we produce is so sacred that it must continue to be produced, even as the number of people who want and depend on it gets smaller and smaller.

In other words, we have to keep this church open, no matter how few people come to sit in the pews.

I think the facts call for a different conclusion — one that local media companies are ignoring to their great peril.

That conclusion: We’re not producing the right content, or at least not nearly enough of it. If we were producing content that large numbers of people felt they really needed every day, we wouldn’t be losing our audience.

So we need to start with a different question. Not, “How do we fund journalism?” but “What is the content that local people really want and need?”

And that points me back to the core purpose of local reporting.

It’s not “doing journalism.” It’s providing information every day that meets genuinely felt needs among the people who live in our communities.

Our purpose should be to figure out what those needs are and go get that information.

Instead of producing mass content covering institutions and events, we need to reframe our sense of purpose around individuals. A great statement of purpose for local reporting in this century would be something like this: “Help people maximise their lives in (fill in the name of the community).”

Covering institutions and events makes us relevant to the average person once in a while. A focus on helping people lead better lives would make us relevant to the average person constantly.

That’s because the human mind is a choice-making engine. Every day, the mind takes in information — “content,” as we call it in our business — to help make choices and decisions. The choice-making engine is always running, and when a piece of information comes along that enables the next choice, we are quick to grab it and act on it.

Most of those choices and decisions, for the average person, are local. Where to eat, where to go, what to buy, how to deal with a problem, what to do with the kids, how to have a good time, and so on. There are many concrete examples.

Journalism tends to define this stuff as “consumer content” — and something that is less important than covering institutions and issues. Humans, on the other hand, tend to define this stuff as “what I care about right now” and prioritise it above things that have less to do with their own lives — such as coverage of institutions and issues.

What a human is doing, when making a decision or choice, is attempting to create a better outcome than the one already in place. Gaining information to fuel new choices and decisions and produce better outcomes is what self-actualisation is all about.

According to psychologist Abraham Maslow, who defined the hierarchy of needs, this is a quest that occupies all humans. The drive to improve one’s situation goes on daily and even hourly — and most often, the key ingredient in improving one’s situation is new information.

These are amazing times for self-actualisation, thanks to digital technologies and devices. The average person has unlimited access, virtually every waking moment, to tremendous amounts of information that can fuel choices and decisions.

Which brings us back to the question of the mission and purpose of local reporting.

For a local media organisation, what higher calling could there be than enabling people to find their way to better local choices and decisions?

When it comes to local living, the choices and decisions are not all sorted out, not pre-empted by national players. There’s no substitute for “local knowledge,” and local media organisations should be the flat-out, unparalleled experts in getting the information that can enable people to make a wide range of choices and decisions in their communities.

Make no mistake about it — new, local information that enables someone to make a new choice and derive a good outcome is “news” to them. Do a lot of this kind of news, and you can be a go-to provider for a whole lot of people.

So, suppose a media organisation were to devote itself to finding and delivering large amounts of information every day that enabled people to make better choices. These could range from small and insignificant (where’s the best burger?) to big and life-changing (how can I get the best healthcare/education/job/etc. for myself and my family?).

We would become a resource that a large majority of local residents would want to use every day for its direct and practical application in their lives.

As newsroom resources diminish, we should be re-centering our purpose on providing the information of greatest value and benefit to the people we serve — the content that local people will value the most and consume most often. That is, the content that enables them to make better choices and therefore lead better lives.

Some of the content we have historically called journalism would have a place in this mix, because it is relevant and impactful to individuals. But much would not. And often the relevance and impact of a “journalism” news story needs to be made much clearer than it is.

Journalism truly is a high calling. It has always attracted altruistic people — those who feel a genuine and selfless devotion to the welfare of others. And journalism has always been about enabling its readers and users to have better lives.

But in these times, when self-actualisation is only clicks away for the average person, it’s imperative to rethink content and relevance at the very individual level, at the very local level, at the very personal level.

About Steve Gray

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