Audience Engagement Guest Columns
5 mins read

When you stop covering something, tell your audience

Newsrooms are pretty good at announcing the launch of things. New sections, new columns, new beats, new hires … it’s exciting to point to new investments the newsroom is making in more or better coverage. 

Most of us, though, are not as practiced at announcing when we stop doing something. We don’t like to draw attention to segments going away, staff leaving or an investment in a specific topic reaching its conclusion. And frankly, we might just assume (or hope) that no one will notice. 

News flash: People notice. And as regular readers will have heard us say repeatedly: When people don’t understand something about our work, they will not give us the benefit of the doubt. They will make assumptions, and those assumptions will likely be negative. 

So in addition to explaining how you choose what to cover — and sometimes why you’re not covering a specific story — we also recommend you reflect publicly when your priorities shift in a way that cuts back on or eliminates coverage. 

First, examine what you CAN stop covering

This is the topic of a new report from our colleagues at the American Press Institute (one of two host organizations for Trusting News, along with the Reynolds Journalism Institute). The report is called “How newsrooms can do less work – but have more impact,” and it aims to help newsrooms take stock of things they’re doing — particularly story types — that simply aren’t worth the effort. It recommends regularly asking newsroom staff: “What are you doing that you don’t think is a good use of your time, and why?” 

The smaller newsroom staffs get, the more important it is that management is thoughtful and strategic about prioritizing.

Then, tell your audience about the change

Articulate the reason for the change in coverage. First, do it completely candidly, as you would explain it to a colleague. Then adjust it to be as honest as you can with the public. Think of it as a way to educate them about how you make decisions in general.

Here are some sample reasons, with suggested language you could try:

This is not getting read.

We can tell through our audience data that not many people find this coverage valuable or interesting. We’re spending about XX hours per week/month to produce it, yet it’s only getting seen by a tiny fraction of our audience. (Be specific if you can with the number of unique users, by raw number or percentage.) As we decide where to put our staff time, we want to invest in reporting that has value, and audience interest is one factor in that decision.

This is not getting read by our most loyal, paying audience.

Some of the visits to our website (use a percentage if you can) come from people who arrive to read just one story or generally visit infrequently. Some of them (again, get specific) don’t live in this community. While we’re happy they’re finding something interesting on our site, they’re not our top priority. We’re here to serve the information needs of our community, and we rely on our devoted readers and our subscribers to keep us focused on what matters most to them. We can tell through our audience data that this coverage is not a high priority for that core group of readers.

Two notes about this:

  1. Be mindful of who you have in your core, loyal audience and who you do not. If your existing subscribers or members tend to be white and affluent, consider which elements of your coverage might help you grow and might appeal to new demographics. Before you stop covering something, have you invested in outreach to make sure the audiences you wish you had have had the opportunity to see the coverage that might be most relevant to them? 
  2. If a lack of funding is driving coverage changes, consider being direct about that. If people want the chance to influence your priorities and support your work, ask them to consider subscribing or donating. 

Our staff priorities have shifted

This coverage, which we’ve run for five years now, was the creation of XXX XXX, who regular readers will know left our staff last month. She had a passion for this topic and brought deep knowledge to her coverage of it. Unfortunately, her departure leaves us without a colleague ready to take her place in this area. We’re grateful for all her work over the years. This project/column/series will end with her departure. 

Staff cuts are forcing us to reprioritize
(This is the hardest one to be honest about.)

As we told you last week (link), our parent company has mandated staff cuts across the company, and we’ve had to reduce our newsroom staff by three positions. Those reductions mean that we simply cannot cover as much as we used to, and we’re committed to being thoughtful as we reprioritize our staff time. Our decisions will be based on the information needs and interests of our community. As much as we wish we could continue to cover this topic/neighborhood/issue, we know that the level of attention we could give it wouldn’t do the issue justice at this time. We need to set it aside for now so we can focus on meaningful coverage of issues that we know matter most to our audience.

Where should these notes go? 

As with other transparency elements, think about where your audience might be curious about the information. Some ideas:

  • In an editor’s note at the top of related stories
  • In a box next to or within related stories
  • In an editor’s column
  • As a brief mention on air in a related segment or newscast
  • In a stand-alone social media post
  • In a comment under a related social media post
  • In a newsletter

For more ideas, see this handout on including transparency elements in stories

Ask for feedback — every time 

Each time you stop to explain your coverage, consider the best way for people to let you know if they have feedback or questions about it. That might be in an online form. It might be an email address or phone number. It might be responding to a comment or sending a message on social media. But do make it clear that you value feedback, and make it easy for people to offer it. 

Joy Mayer
Trusting News Director

Trusting News aims to demystify trust in news and empower journalists to take responsibility for actively demonstrating credibility and earning trust. It is a project of the Reynolds Journalism Institute and the American Press Institute

Re-published with kind permission of Trusting News