Content strategies must balance good and bad news


If you take a serious look at your friends, I am certain you have become more picky about whom you spend time with as you grow older.

I tend to choose people who give more, or at least exert as much energy as they take. People who have a positive and constructive approach to life. People who spread warmth and happiness.

Let’s make friendship a metaphor for news operations. And let’s take a serious look at what kind of energy our platforms communicate every day. 

A number of scientific studies have shown over the years that traditional media focus on negative stories. Be it for psycho-physiological reasons, as this study from 2010 claims, or merely for maximising profits.

But what if these short-term gains are backfiring in the long term?

What if this content strategy, triggering the reptile brain’s lust for the “candy and liquor” content, is slowly eroding not only the credibility of our operations but the entire experience of our brands?

In this era, in which newsmedia executives all preach customer relationship building, I believe we have to seriously re-think current content strategies. We have to stop focusing on click-through rates (CTRs)  and the number of “likes.” Instead, we need to find a way to engage with our audiences on a much deeper level, which will be more satisfactory to everyone in the long run. 

In order to succeed, we need to say, “Bye-bye, content candy,” and “Hello, carrots and whole wheat.”

One example I sometimes use when I lecture on journalism is that of the Swedish Midsummer. Great crowds gather at the end of June, when the Scandinavian summer climaxes in flowers and light.

Often, local organisations and clubs work the entire year to prepare elaborate programmes with folk-dancing, flag parades, and ceremonies honouring new Swedish citizens. Families gather together, bringing picnic baskets and blankets. This celebration is a true manifestation of togetherness and unity.

The local news media send a young female reporter to “do something” on the festivities. Not very pleased with this low-hierarchical task, the now-frustrated journalist takes a few photos of the people and flags and quickly returns to the newsroom. There, she immediately phones the local police to ask if anything “happened.” The officer on duty informs her of several driving-under-the-influence cases. Eureka! Finally, an angle!

Headline: Many drunk drivers on Midsummer roads

The families who attended the festivities are eager to see the reportage from the day. But when they encounter this angle, they are not only disappointed — they don’t even recognise the event they attended.

The effect on your brand is disastrous. You are perceived as some kind of Pravda during the totalitarian era. Reporting on a reality no one recognises.

In this digital age, where content is easy to find, where citizen journalism communities will offer the audience alternate images, we need to change content strategies. And we need to do it fast.

There already are voices out there encouraging our audiences to start ignoring us, because of our current content strategies. One of them is Joel Gascoigne, founder of Buffer.

I do understand him. But I don’t believe the answer is to encourage the audience to turn its back on us. If they do, we hurt democracy, since the disruptive landscape is far from capable of filling the gaps that disappearing legacy media leave behind.

I believe the answer is to stop focusing on the darker angles of stories. We need to create a content strategy that supports overall vision and mission statements, parelleling a focus on investigative journalism — the most powerful tool there is when it comes to building a stronger community. And a vaccine against any accusations of populism or community PR.

Content strategy does not only consist of what material is published on which platform, or whether content should be paid or free. The content you publish projects what your brand stands for. 

If you want to be serving your clients and truly satisfying customer needs, you need a content strategy that touches the core.

What kind of stories should we focus on?

Who should appear in pictures? Why, and in what context?

You say you are championing feminism? How will you be credible in this endeavour if 50% of the pictures of women you publish portray them as objects and actresses showing lots of cleavage?

You say you are for multi-culturalism? How can anyone believe you when immigrants are only allowed to appear depressed and limited to topics like segregation or unemployment?

To be successful you need to break down intra-organisational silos. These challenges are not only questions for the newsroom; this is about your external communication, about long-term brand building.

You need key performance indictors (KPIs) to support the change, measuring negative/positive/neutral angles, measuring balance, and content selection.

No one stays friends with someone who always brings bad news. That is true for friends. And that is true for any long-term relationship.

So contemplate this:

Which brand would you rather embrace? One that leaves you with feelings of worry, anguish, and despair? Or one that shares with you uplifting stories of hope, one that fills you daily with hope? 

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