Know your audience, know yourself

Who, exactly, are your readers? Most news organizations will (and should!) respond “the local community.” It’s an easy answer. It makes sense. It’s also, in light of the decisions and content you publish, almost certainly wrong.

This was certainly the correct answer in the era of dead-tree-only newspapers: You got your content (local and wire), packaged it into a physical medium, then gave that information to people — whether delivering it directly to their houses or giving it to a middleman (stores, newsstands) and having them make the final handoff.

Regardless of method, your readers were just the people who could literally grab the information after you gave it to them. Your audience almost certainly contained itself to a certain geographical area, unless you had agreements (NYT, USA Today, etc.) to have other people print and/or deliver it for you.

Thus, most often your stories were chosen (“curated,” in the current parlance) to appeal to local readers. Philly papers would carry Eagles games but might not care about the Chargers outside of the playoffs. A congressional scandal from a Floridian might only merit a brief, unless the story was somehow relevant to the locals or especially salacious. In short, the local news organizations geared its coverage and stories toward … locals.

Then, the internet.* Not only were news organizations forced to grapple with a new distribution system, new software and hardware to create their stories, and new methods of engagement, they were also blown away by/seduced into thinking their audience opened up from the geographically-constrained microniche to the entire world. Suddenly, everyone could be the New York Times!

Except no, because duh.

Somehow, the idea that the Internet allows individuals/smaller organizations to compete with the media titans has transformed into the notion that every news organization is competing with each other.

This is only as true as each organization allows it to be. Yes, via Google every story you run has a possibility of being picked up for mass consumption. And heck, when you tie in Facetwinterest+ posts that go viral on Reddifark, editors feel all but obligated to make sure they’re feeding through and commenting on every national news story.

This is wrongheaded thinking on both the business and editorial side. On the revenue side of things, most local news organizations are making a go of it by selling local advertising. Local advertisers, unsurprisingly, want their local advertisements to be seen by local eyeballs, since random reader from Albany is unlikely to waltz into Shirley’s House o’ Hotcakes for breakfast.

You will make some money off the additional pageviews, bu a) you can make more by expanding your local audience, and b) unless you’re hitting an UpWorthy-like streak of virality, it’s unlikely you’re funding anything with your occasional viral pageview spikes. Editorially, it made (and continues to make!) sense to mix in national with local news, with the idea that you, the local news organization, can hand-select things that are relevant to your local audience and tailor that national content.

Note: That means things like calling your state’s Senators to get a reaction to a bill passing and putting it in the story, not changing the headline to “What if something like this happened in Randomville, USA, where we live?”

The biggest argument against this is that if a video of an eagle snatching a baby goes viral nation/worldwide, it’s likely local readers want to see it as well. This is correct, but it misses the point: Local readers will likely not be coming to your site with the intention of watching said babynapping.

And if you hire someone to post all the latest trending topics from Reddit to your site, that’s someone you’re paying who’s not reporting your local news. And if you don’t offer a compelling reason for local readers to visit your site, they’re eventually just going to visit Reddit to get their viral fix.

Your mission as a content to provider is to provide content that your audience can’t get anywhere else.

You especially should endeavor not to focus on content that your audience can get literally everywhere else. Because if you don’t give your audience a reason they need to visit your site, they will stop visiting your site. It’s pretty simple.

Don’t fret! This is good news for local news organizations. Because you’ve been (hopefully) offering that content all along: Local news. They can get the viral stuff from Fark, from MSNBC, from whoever. And while it make sense for national media sites to cover trending virality (because they sell national ads anyway), you should focus on the stuff you do best: Covering local news. Do it well enough, and some of that content will become viral simply because of its inherent quality/your social media promotions (which you should be doing anyway).

And if you have a system to autofeed viral/AP/wire content, by all means don’t delete it. But don’t spend any time on it that’s not going to building your core audience, which is local.

You don’t survive in the new media landscape by creating content, you survive by creating an audience and monetizing it through whatever means you prefer (paywall, advertising, ebooks, etc.). You need to be constantly aware of and catering to your desired audience, and willing to ignore everything else.