How user needs ensure newsrooms are delivering the most value to overwhelmed audiences

And how European media houses are leaning into digital transformation

The demand for news or the lack thereof has been the theme of the last few newsletters, and the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism 2024 Digital News Report chronicles how a lack of trust (although it stabilised this year) and news avoidance are challenging news organisations in a business environment that has led to layoffs and closures. “Selective news avoidance” - where audiences choose to avoid certain issues - has risen to 39%, driven by conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East, suggested by some responses to the open-ended comments. The rise was highest in Brazil, Spain, Germany and Finland. Those who feel “overloaded” by the news have jumped 11% since 2019. Applying a “user needs” lens, the report found that news outlets “may be focusing too much on updating people on top news stories and not spending enough time providing different perspectives on issues or reporting stories that can provide a basis for occasional optimism”.

In Dmitry Shishkin’s ground-breaking work on user needs at the BBC World Service, focusing too much on “update me” was one of his major findings. In 2018, he told

The majority of newsrooms still think that 'update me' is the most important need, but through data we have seen if you start addressing the other needs on a regular basis, you grow.

Dmitry Shishkin, now CEO of Ringier Media International

When they did the first user needs analysis at BBC World Service, BBC Russia produced 70% of its content to meet the “update me” user needs, but all of those updates were only delivering 7% of pageviews. What Dmitry and several other publishers have found is that they can cut back on all of these updates and focus on the other six needs - inspire me, divert me, educate me, keep me on trend and give me perspective - and reach more people. From my experience with a major UK newspaper publisher, they produced too many follow-up stories based on breaking news. The second story might have done well, but by the third update, the diminishing returns were rarely worth the effort.

The Digital News Report provided an interesting perspective on user needs by using two questions to provide a “user needs priority index” for six different user needs. “Give me perspective” scored the highest with “inspire me” coming in second, with “update me” lagging in third. “Divert me” came in last, which isn’t surprising to me. Audiences have plenty of choices when it comes to diversion, and news media will struggle to compete here and frankly doesn’t need to.

Providing people with perspective and inspiring them resonates with other findings in the report that show that news audiences are overwhelmed and worn out. With COVID, the climate crisis, the cost-of-living crisis and conflicts, people are exhausted by the news. In France, Brazil, Spain, Canada, the United States and South Africa, more than 40% of audiences said they were “worn out” by the news, and this had risen in several of these countries from the mid-20s in 2019. They want to understand the chaotic world around them and find inspiration and agency. People feel that news is part of the problem rather than a solution to these major crises, based on data like this and conversations I’ve had.

The user needs model has proven extremely effective at helping news organisations (and other content companies) create content strategies that deliver the most value to audiences. More than that, when many news organisations are grappling with reduced resources, it helps media leaders know they are using their resources in the best way possible. The user needs framework has reached a level of maturity that it can be effectively applied in newsrooms that operate at any scale, and the smaller the newsroom, the more important it is for them to ensure their people are doing work that resonates with audiences.

User needs is one framework, and the quality reads metric is another tool to align and focus newsrooms so that their work resonates with audiences. The FT has a goal of reducing the volume of content it produces each year by 15% “in order to focus more time on quality journalism”. The quality reads analysis plots stories by the volume of pageviews and the completion rate of content to provide a nuanced measure of audience engagement. High-performing content has high number pageviews and high completion rates so editors know to do more of that content, while high completion rate and lower pageviews appeal to niches. Stories in the lower left corner of the graph are stories that have low pageview and engagement, and editors know with confidence that they can reduce their efforts on these stories.

Returning to the Digital News Report, it has plenty of other insights, which I’ll be mulling over (but not this week as I’m off work), including a “platform reset” and audiences, especially younger ones, consuming more news via short-form video.

Now on to a few links this week. As I wrote in Pugpig’s Media Bulletin, major European media houses are leaning into digital transformation. They have reset their digital subscription North Star goals and are focused on young audienes who consume news primarily on their smartphones. At Mediahuis, they are focusing on flipping their digital-print subscription mix in seven years so that 70% of their subscription revenue comes from digital.

At NTM, they had to retool their subscription efforts because growth had stalled - something the Digital News Report found in many countries. Mobile is their focus. They redesigned their app to be simpler and cleaner, which delivered a dramatic increase in engagement with stories even deeper on their mobile front page. Focusing on their app made perfect sense with 80% of their audiences coming to them via a mobile device.

Josh Awtry at Newsweek (who was at Gannett when I was there) spoke about one of my favourite topics - shifting from rented to owned audiences to the Local Media Association. He challenged participants in the webinar with this question: “Do you have traffic or audience?”

“Total concentration among the top 25 ticked up again last year above 72%.. By our reckoning, if we take the top five advertising sellers of the last seven years [Google, Meta, Bytedance, Amazon and Alibaba], their compound annual growth rate was 23%. All the rest of the market, if we strip out that revenue, grew just 2.1% — slower than global GDP over the same period of time.”

Kate Scott-Dawkins, GroupM president of business intelligence

Revenue diversification is one of the major themes for news groups, and the venerable Associated Press is no exception. It’s a good example of how even a wire service can develop new products and revenue streams. Of course, its recent deal with OpenAI is one of their alternatuve sources of revenue.

The Digital News Report adds to a recent study that the Reuters Institute released about AI and journalism with additional detail about audiences’ attitudes towards its use. As with the previous research, audiences are open to AI being used to automate processes but less open for genAI being used to create content. Most responsible news companies are using genAI to create summaries and automate back end services such as tagging and other metadata additions. INMA has a good review here of how AI is being rolled out at media companies.