What are people in our community most passionate about? What are they most concerned about?
In other words, which topics are most important to residents of the greater Pierce County area?
If The News Tribune set out to be the best possible news source on a handful of those most-important topics, what would they be? And what story approaches would work best?
Answering those questions correctly is crucial to helping us fulfill our community-service mission, and to our financial success as well. Yet, for the most part, newspaper editors must best-guess the answers relying on news sense, gut feeling and what readers tell us anecdotally.
It’s been more art than science.
For the next several months, we plan to apply a more scientific method.
The American Press Institute will be our partner on this quest. API is a decades-old journalism training organization and think tank. It also has a strong research arm that will be key in helping with our project.
Together, we’ll be gathering data on two fronts.
First, we’ve begun using API software to “tag” every piece of local content we post online (which generally correlates to what’s running in the paper). We’ve always been able to see which individual stories attract the most clicks, but this will allow us to track performance trends on types of stories over time.
Editors will fill out an online form for each story, identifying which topic or two it’s about. Our 31 topics range from local government to arts, from marijuana to Mariners. Editors also identify whether the story is a news brief, long-form piece, column or other story type. And they identify its relevance to readers. Is it an explainer or a watchdog story, a celebratory piece or meant simply to entertain?
Once we get the hang of it, the forms should take only a few seconds to fill out. Eventually, we’ll be able to pull reports that tell us which topics and which approaches gained the most readership. In addition to counting readers, this software will tell us how much time, on average, readers spent on each piece.
Second, API will help us conduct a survey of area residents — TNT readers and nonreaders — to ask what they care about most. The questions will be more open-ended than in previous surveys that asked specifically how readers felt about topics we already cover. We hope this turns up some new topic ideas.
To get an idea of where this might lead, API asked our editors to rank, on the one hand, which topics the TNT covers most thoroughly, and on the other hand, which topics we think area residents care most about.
Schools and outdoor recreation ranked eighth and ninth on our list of where we focus resources, but they ranked second and third on our list of what we think readers care about. It will be interesting to see how well we predicted our audience preferences.
This fall, we’ll analyze the two buckets of data — our story tracking and the surveys — and see what they tell us.
Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of API, theorizes that news organizations need to make a shift. Traditionally, general interest newspapers have provided fairly shallow coverage across a vast breadth of topics. To be successful in the future, he believes, we need to choose a smaller number of “tentpole” topics that really matter to local people and become the go-to source for that news. Less important topics will get less attention.
We intend to keep you informed along the way about what we’re learning.
We’ll need your help as well. If you get a survey, please fill it out. If we invite you to serve on a focus group, please consider volunteering.
And feel free to send me an email and tell me what you’re thinking.
We’re excited (and a little anxious) to learn where we’re hitting the mark for readers and where we’re not.
Either way, we’ll have an opportunity to fine-tune our coverage in ways that hopefully will serve you better.