Focus on creating value for readers to build and retain an audience online

Where’s the value in what you write?

That’s the question that should be running through your mind before you hit the “submit” button on your blog or article input form. And don’t think about the value to you, as a writer, or to your editor or your sources or even to your publication.

What’s the value of your work to your readers?

The more specific, the better. I’ve worked with many journalists who, when confronted with this question, retreat to platitudes about a “well informed public” or “keeping watch on public officials.”

That’s nice, but smart publishers don’t think about their readers as a faceless collective – they see instead a collection of individuals, people who make decisions based upon their individual needs and circumstances.

I’m ultimately an optimist who believes that most people care about the communities and want to stay informed. But I’m also a realist who recognizes that individuals have demands on their time and attention. Kids need to be picked up from school. The roof needs repairs. Grocery money’s running out before the next payday. How are we going to visit our family this year?

There as many different lists like that out there as there are individuals.

Before the Internet, people had few choices about where to get news: the daily newspaper, a handful of TV stations, maybe a local radio newscast or two. If you wanted to know about a niche topic, perhaps you subscribed to a magazine. So reporters could get away with unfocused coverage and retain an audience. Newton’s first law of motion worked to a publisher’s advantage then. Readers had a habit of going to one of their few choices, and tended to keep coming back.

With the Internet, readers have no need to be patient with stuff that doesn’t meet their immediate needs. Other sources stand ready to inform, a quick mouse click away. That’s changed people’s reading and viewing habits. Newton’s first law works against individual publishers now: readers are clicking around, and will tend to keep clicking, unless you provide some powerful source to stop them.

What are you going to offer that will make a reader stop surfing?

Where’s the value in what you write?

What’s the “take-away” from your piece, from your website, from your publication that’s so valuable that it not only will make a individual reader stop and take notice, but also “Like” it on Facebook, tweet it to followers and e-mail it to friends?

In all our talk about social media and connecting with an audience, we must never forget that we’re dealing with individuals. And that even the largest social networks got that way because they allowed people to make connections at an individual level. No one gets on Facebook to be on Facebook. They get on Facebook to better connect with friends, family, colleagues and classmates. And then, to expand their network to the friends of friends.

Readers connect with a news publication – now – in the same way. You need to provide content that immediately connects with the individual needs of readers’ individual lives: their budgets, their families, their health, their careers, their passions. Only once you’ve forged those connections can you go to the second-generation, “friend of a friend” step and connect your readers to the broader issues and concerns that affect their lives in more indirect ways.

So think about the immediate take-away with everything you write, shoot, blog or tweet. Create with sharply focused intent. If you can’t see why someone would get excited to discover what you’re about to write – then find something else to write about. If you aren’t seeing a productive community of readers forming around a section of your news publication, then you probably need to reassign your staff to cover beats and topics that do engage the public.

Readers and viewers are no longer bound to the ways that newspapers and broadcast stations did things a generation ago. Their inertia has shifted. So why should news publishers allow inertia to bind them to the same beats, story forms and reporting and editing process from years past? Let’s move with our audience, instead.

Focus on what your audience needs – right now, and in everything you do – and you won’t need to worry about having the market clout to attract advertisers, funders and financial support. For if there’s anything that hasn’t changed in the news industry, it’s that publications which meet the needs of their readers don’t lose those readers.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at


  1. says:

    Good post on the importance of a publisher’s need to know the specific and unique value proposition being provided to the audience.

    The value proposition can be more than connection. The 4 value propositions to an audience are:

    Make Money
    Save Time
    Stay Connected
    Be Entertained