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Your audience doesn’t know what it wants– and will lie about it

One of the chief complaints I’ve gotten throughout my career, whether it be professionally or just talking about the news with friends, is that the news is too negative.

“We want to hear positive things about our community. We don’t want to know about all this crime and corruption,” they say.

My response is always the same. I tell them, “Yes, but you don’t actually read positive stories, the stories you complain about are the first ones you read.”

News audiences will tell you until they are blue in the face that they want positive and uplifting news stories, but web analytics data, comments on stories, and social media engagement will show that they are far more interested in crime, corruption, and negative news.

What they actually are concerned about when they complain is how their community is portrayed. They want everything to look rosy, but they don’t actually click on those links to positive stories. They’ll like them and share them, but they aren’t actually reading them.

One of the worst things a news organization can try to do is actually meet some of these demands. Cover positive news for too long, and your audience starts to label you as “soft news” or “not hard-hitting enough.” Prior to the Internet, news organizations used to really take these criticisms to heart, and you would see newspapers and news broadcasts shift between a mostly soft news and mostly hard news product every few years.

Web analytics has changed that and really brings the chickens home to roost when it comes to the complaints of our audiences. You can scream at us on the phone for 20 minutes about how much you hate the local news coverage, but our web analytics tell us that you’ve been clicking on all those stories you say you hate. And you’ve been clicking a lot.

Cable news experienced this during the 2016 primaries. Viewers would constantly complain about what seemed like wall-to-wall coverage of Donald Trump, who many saw as a sideshow early in the primaries. But, the ratings show that coverage of candidate Trump were a boom for networks.

So, if you’re a journalist at a small to medium-sized news organization, what do you do with these complaints from your readers and viewers? Well, obviously, you have to listen to them and take the complaint seriously. You may even feel at liberty to explain the difference between reader demands and reader habits, but even if you get a ton of complaints every day about the types of stories you’re covering, check your analytics data first.

Our audiences tell us who they want to be. On social media, they share stories they think reflect who they want to be. What they actually click on and what they actually read or watch are often completely different.

I’ve never gotten a phone call from someone who didn’t like the fact that we covered a given story who couldn’t quote back to me everything that was in that story. My point is, they may say they don’t like it, but they almost always read it. But, don’t take my word for it. Look at your organization’s web data, it will reveal more about your audience than your audience members will ever tell you themselves.

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