Meeting Audience Needs: 6 Questions Newsrooms Should Be Asking
By Katalina Deaven
Center for Media Engagement
Understanding the needs of local news audiences is essential for a healthy media ecosystem. But before newsrooms can take steps toward meeting these needs, it’s crucial that they understand how people interact with local news, what issues they find important and which communities feel underrepresented.
The Center for Media Engagement’s latest research, in partnership with The Lenfest Institute for Journalism and Independence Public Media Foundation, used these guiding questions to provide a portrait of the Philadelphia Media Landscape. Insights from more than 1,500 Philadelphia residents and articles from more than 80 local news sites provided deeper understanding of coverage gaps in the area and a roadmap for future local news initiatives.
Beyond Philadelphia, the findings from this report offer an approach that can be used by cities to evaluate the health of their media ecosystem. By asking themselves the six questions below, news organizations can work to better understand their local communities and create coverage that more effectively serves public interest.
1. What issues are important to people in our area?
Understanding which local issues are a top priority for residents allows newsrooms to evaluate whether their coverage aligns with public interest and whether there are opportunities to expand or pull back on coverage of certain topics.
When asked about the most important issues facing their neighborhood, Philadelphians mentioned crime and safety most often. In line with this interest, these topics were mentioned more than any others in the local news articles we analyzed — perhaps why evaluations of crime and safety coverage received the highest ratings from residents.
In comparison, most other issues that people found important were rated closer to a “poor job” on how well they were covered by local media. Analysis of news coverage shows that many of these issues were, in fact, under-covered when compared to how often they were identified as important. For example, sanitation, trash removal, and cleanliness were mentioned as important by 34% of Philadelphians and yet were mentioned in only 3% of the articles we reviewed.
When identifying issues that might warrant more coverage, it’s important to note that just because the topic is a top priority for residents does not mean it should account for the majority of coverage. In Philadelphia, 70% of the public mentioned crime and safety as important, but it would be a bad idea for news outlets to allocate an equally significant portion of coverage to crime. In fact, doing so could put too much emphasis on danger and make people think it’s a bigger issue than it is.
Flagging issues of local importance should simply serve as a guide for aligning coverage with audience priorities. If topics that continually arise as important to the public are rarely covered, this suggests that additional coverage could be helpful.
2. What neighborhoods make up our audience — and are they adequately covered?
While some issues will prove to be important regardless of where people live, interest in others will vary depending on the area. Meeting the needs of an entire coverage area requires commitment to representing all communities equitably.
Though we looked at factors like gender, age, race, education, income and living situation, people’s location still had an impact on the issues that they found important. When evaluating how well different neighborhoods were represented in news coverage, however, we found the most populous areas were not always the ones that were covered most frequently.
Assessing coverage patterns can help news organizations identify areas that are underserved. Since issue importance can vary greatly by neighborhood, it can also provide opportunity to create community-specific coverage that serves audience appetite.
3. Do people feel that our coverage represents them?
Knowing which communities feel underrepresented — or negatively portrayed — by local media can help newsrooms evaluate their story choices.
In general, Philadelphians rated local media as slightly above average in representing their neighborhoods. Nearly half of people agreed, however, that there weren’t enough stories about their neighborhood and that people from their neighborhood weren’t represented in the news.
Beyond neighborhood, numerous other factors play into whether people feel represented. In this study, older Philadelphians and Democrats believed that local media represented them better, providing evidence of an opportunity to reach younger Philadelphians and Republicans. Men, those living in Philly for fewer years, and those with more kids in their home also felt better represented, leaving the opportunity to reach more women, long-time residents, and those without kids.
4. Are we helping to provide solutions to problems?
Across the city of Philadelphia, people believed news organizations were not offering solutions to problems facing their communities. In fact, this category was rated the lowest of all the categories that asked about whether people felt represented by local media.
The takeaway here is that the appetite for solutions journalism is there — and newsrooms should consider how they can cover important issues in ways that offer comprehensive coverage and propose solutions rather than just focus on problems.
5. Are we providing opportunities for people to get involved?
When asked about local politics and issues, Philadelphians were more confident in their ability to understand important issues but less confident in their qualifications to participate in politics and ability to influence government.
Another noteworthy finding was people in areas that gave the most negative assessments of what the media thought of their neighborhoods were more likely to volunteer to report on a public meeting and expressed the greatest interest in talking to a journalist.
These answers show that people do want to get involved in local news and politics — and news organizations should consider how they can provide opportunities to make it happen.
6. Where are people in our communities turning to for news?
Finally, understanding where people are turning to for news can help media organizations potentially identify underutilized ways to reach their audience. Our study found television and social media were the most used sources of information about Philadelphia — followed by friends, family, and colleagues and then websites and apps. When asked about the news outlets they utilize, people shared that they used an average of five different news sources to get local updates.
Overall, this study illustrates that people want to be represented by their local media and want media organizations to offer solutions to the issues they find important — findings that translate to any newsroom looking to better connect with their local audience.