What do today’s news consumers really want?

For many Knight Fellows who are seasoned journalists, the day-to-day hustle of newsroom deadlines can get in the way of talking to our readers to figure out what they really want. The Fellowship allows us time to do just that — so recently, Martin Kotynek, Gus D’Angelo, and I spent a Saturday asking people in San Francisco two fundamental questions: In this digital age, how do you get your news, and why?

Our goal was to combine what we’ve learned at Stanford about human-centered design with our passion for transforming journalism. The results of our interviews (around 35 among the three of us) were as varied as they were fascinating. Each of us came away with a deeper understanding of what people actually want in terms of news and journalism — not just what we think they want. Here are some of our observations.

Alexa: For me, the most exciting revelation was something I’ve noticed in my own news consumption: from a reader’s perspective, once a story gets going, it can be hard to jump in midstream. One guy we talked to consumes plenty of “hard news” about complex subjects, but he mentioned that he “never got into” the Chris Christie scandal.

I found that really interesting: the Christie scandal—about how the New Jersey governor’s staffers allegedly orchestrated a huge traffic jam as political retribution — wasn’t all that complex, and it was certainly juicy. So it wasn’t that he wouldn’t have been interested; it seemed like more of a reflection on how the volume of media coverage was so overwhelming that he never really knew where to start.

Martin: We got lots of “shoulds” from people we interviewed: Why do you follow the news? – “Because I should stay updated,” “Because I should be as informed as my co-workers/family,” “Because I should check the news more often,” “Because I should pay more attention to foreign affairs.” Many interviewees saw it as their duty, but not as a pleasure to read the news. I’m wondering: How might we make following the news a more rewarding experience? Less “should,” more “like.”

I was amazed by the wide array of sources our interviewees used to get their news: First thing in the morning they listen to AM radio, to a live audio stream in a radio app, they read their local TV station’s newsfeed, they use personalized news apps, they turn to the BBC to get “a more balanced view,” they keep their print newspaper subscription as kind of a “donation” to journalism, they watch TV. Facebook was not seen as a source for world news; no one was an active user on Twitter.

Gus: I was impressed by how all my interviewees were so passionate about the news – though none of them paid directly to get it. They were all willing to talk at length about their news consumption habits such as the kinds of news they wanted and how they received it.

What became more interesting for me was trying to dig deeper by asking them “Why?” Why did they want the news at all? What “need” did the news satisfy? How did they value it? Did the the news make them feel better about themselves in any way?

Many responded that they followed the news so they could share it with family or friends. From talking in casual conversations to forwarding a story link to passing along a column cut out of a magazine, the news was a vehicle to communicate and connect. Keeping up with the news made them feel a part of their community. They felt valued for their role as an informed person or knowledge on a particular issue.

I think we could do more researching this line of questioning to get a better sense of how to target and present news stories that meet deeper audience needs.