If news media companies want to attract the growing number of news avoiders, they need to start listening. And that is exactly what Schibsted is doing with its IN/LAB programme, a joint venture it created with Tinius Trust to safeguard and promote the future of journalism.
Agnes Stenbom, head of the nascent IN/LAB, explained during an INMA members-only Webinar last week how her team is gathering information from news avoiders to learn how to attract and include them. She emphasised that it all begins with understanding where they’re coming from.
“We have to listen to the perspectives of these groups to ensure that we actually take action to prevent them from growing,” Stenbom said. “Even when it’s uncomfortable, even when we know that they are wrong … for the long-term wellbeing of the Fourth Estate and our democracies, we have to listen.”
IN/LAB, which is short for “inclusion lab,” is studying why people avoid the news to learn what can be done about it.
Although Norwegian and Swedish news companies enjoy a relatively high level of trust amongst consumers, a growing number of people are avoiding traditional media and, in 2021, 14% of Norwegians between the ages of 9 and 79 did not, on an average day, consume any news media.
“This trend of growing non-consumption avoidance is not new, but has been cooking for a long time in our markets,” Stenbom said, showing a graphic dating back to 1986 that showed a gradual decline in news consumption. In 2013, 17% of readers in Sweden avoided the news; today, that number has risen to 32%.
One of the big drivers of news avoidance is the fragmentation of the news world. Consumers have more outlets from which they receive news and many are turning to alternative sources — which may or may not be factual.
The assumption that people are choosing to stay uninformed isn’t necessarily correct, Stenbom said: “There are lots of factors that we need to take into account when we think about use avoidance and whether it’s actually an active choice.”
Stenbom explained that by not including everyone’s perspective in their news coverage, media companies are contributing to the trend of news avoidance and creating what she termed “news outsiders.” And ignoring those outsiders could have dramatic implications for the future.
Bringing the outsiders in
To counter the growing trend of news avoidance, IN/LAB is leveraging AI and other emerging technologies to create more inclusive news experiences. However, for that technology to be successful, she said it needs to have a better understanding of user needs. Discovering those needs begins with a question: How do we create more inclusive experiences?
“We know that we are not the ones to answer this question. We cannot answer this question without talking to the people currently on the outside,” Stenbom said.
IN/LAB, which launched in April, is using a three-part approach to expand its reach:
- Community research: “We’re talking about groups that are currently underserved, that are currently blank spots or blind spots for us, so to speak,” she said.
- Technical experiments: “We are tasked with a mandate to prototype future news experiences for current use outsiders.”
- Editorial efforts: “We think that a lot of what we find in our community research is going to be relevant, journalistic topics that need further investigation.”
Using the design thinking process has been critical to helping the lab structure its work and begin understanding the problem before trying to find solutions, Stenbom said. The process begins with developing empathy toward the intended user group.
“That does not necessarily mean that we empathise with or support the ideology or opinions of our current target group, but rather that we find empathy for their reality and have a genuinely open mind when it comes to hearing their perspectives.”
The power of listening
Listening to what they believe and how they perceive the news media can be uncomfortable, but it is essential for understanding how to attract them. The insight gathered can be used to guide the product development journey.
One example Stenbom gave was a group of young people IN/LAB worked with earlier this year; all came from the outer areas of Stockholm — multicultural residential areas with lower-than-average socioeconomic status and educational levels. They are considered vulnerable communities but Stenbom said they are important to include because they have a population of about 250,000 — and that includes nearly 100,000 residents under the age of 25.
Sitting down with this group brought up points such as how the coverage of those areas was rarely told from the perspective of someone who lived there; instead, news media only reported on crimes.
“For this group specifically, we think that there are critical jobs to be done to make sure that, in the future, we have a news product that actually caters to them,” Stenbom noted. “But we can't figure out what the jobs to be done are without talking to them.”
The work is still in the empathy stage of the process, so she couldn’t report results, but Stenbom shared that the team has already learned much from listening and literally meeting these teenagers and young adults where they live:
“We’ve spent time on playgrounds and benches and parks and community cafes all over Stockholm,” she said. IN/LAB also has hosted workshops with local youth community centres in these areas and talked about what the concept of news means to them — what it does for them and what it could do for them in the future.
“One of the key things that we’ve learned is the need to have a conversation about news on their terms,” Stenbom said. “And that might mean accepting insights that are messy, very subjective, and complex to interpret.”
To reduce churn and build news habits with younger audiences, she said news media companies must think about whose perspective they are publishing and who they are excluding.
“And once we start narrowing in on the outsiders in our market and in our society, then we can ask ourselves, what can we do to empathise with the media consumers of the future?”
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