Every newsroom has a plan for targeting its key demographic groups. But the assumptions we make can do more harm than good. Here’s what newsrooms really need to focus on.
By Tim Wolff, VP, TV and Digital Publishing Innovation, Futuri
It’s a situation that probably sounds familiar to any television executive. At a TV station where I used to work, I was in a meeting where our management team was reviewing research, trying to figure out how to stop what we were told was a slide in viewing among a key demo: women 25-39.
(Note—while this meeting happened to be focused on this demo, I’ve found what’s true in this demo is true in any demo.)
We thought this demo was sliding because the consultant presenting the research quite gravely pointed out that favorability among women 25-39 had dropped nearly 2%. No one seemed to care that the entire research tracking study only had 500 participants, and only about 60 were in this demo… meaning exactly 1 person had rated us as less favorable than the previous tracking study.
Just because numbers seem alike doesn’t mean they are alike
As it happened, we were in the middle of making a decision about the hiring of an anchor. The first conclusion our team jumped to was that, if we are trying to attract women 25-39, we should hire a woman who is between the ages of 25 and 39. It may seem like a reasonable assumption, but it is, in fact a very large assumption—and assumptions are a poor proxy for data.
That was something I’d learned early in my news career. At another station where I’d worked, they had followed this exact approach when naming a chief meteorologist. She was quite good and very well-liked, but one of the managers told me they had really been surprised—her biggest fans were women 60+. “They love her because they remind them of their daughters or granddaughters,” this manager told me. She actually did not perform particularly well among the younger female demographic.
It was that experience that helped me understand the value of what one of the leaders said in the room. It was something along the lines of, “If we are going to try to target one demographic, shouldn’t we do some testing to see if this demo has a preference for a news anchor?”
Everyone agreed this was a great idea—even the VP who had to pay the consultant for another round of research.
What the research showed
When it came back, it turned out that women in the DMA between 25-39 years old did appear to have a slight preference for one demo. The researchers had asked about trustworthy news among 6 different potential anchors, using a variety of pictures as representation: Females or males in the ages of 25-39, 40-55, and 55+. Each person in the research — again, women 25-39 —chose one as they’d most trust and want to watch in a local newscast:
- Male 40-55: 22%
- Male 55+: 20%
- Female 40-55: 18%
- Female 25-39: 17%
- Female 55+: 13%
- Male 25-39: 10%
But even this research is misleading, as the margin of error was staggeringly high, and the margins so small as to hardly be definitive. But it did show us that our proxy for data, our assumption that people in a given demo have a strong preference to watch news delivered by someone in that same demo, was not a very good proxy at all.
The newsroom leader who was making the decision on hiring an anchor used all of this very wisely, deciding that what it really meant was just that we needed to hire the best anchor; someone who was both a strong journalist and a great communicator (and in this case happened to be a woman in her late 30s).
And while this particular case was focused on women 25-39, I’ve seen similar truths about men and women of all ages. If a sports radio station is targeting 25-49 year old males, it does not mean that the best anchors they could hire should be men 25-49. There is simply very little correlation to how much they trust someone or want to watch someone and the coincidence of whether that person happens to be in their demo.
That’s not to say representation doesn’t matter—it does, and it is critical for all people in your DMA to see people they can connect with, or to see someone who looks like them and the people they know. This is especially critical in traditionally under-represented communities.
But which demo your anchors happen to fit into is actually not very important in whether a viewer will choose to watch your newscast. And there is a very simple reason for that: YOUR VIEWERS ARE NOT SHALLOW.
It’s about substance
News viewers care about substance. They care about their community, and they know their community is intertwined with people of every age, gender, lifestyle and hometown in your DMA. They live with and love people outside of their demo, and they care about news from every demo.
(Tip: To help your assignment desk and anchors quickly find content that suits your target audience demo, try Futuri’s TopicPulse. Its AI-powered feeds tell you what topics people in your target audience are seeing and sharing, and even clues you in to which ones aren’t yet getting a lot of news coverage.)
That’s why the best path for you, and the most critical way to move forward, is to focus on the representation in the substance of your content, not in the demo appearance of your talent.
Track what you’re doing
This was the biggest realization for me, and the way I found we could have the biggest impact on every demo. We started tracking our content topics, and we started tracking who we were interviewing…and made a discovery both startling and familiar. The overwhelming majority of our interviews were with officials, and, in our market at the time, the overwhelming majority of officials were white males over 50.
This presented a few problems; first, it meant that we were getting an overabundance of one perspective; second, it meant that we were getting a lot of boring soundbites that just stated information.
So I started by using a proxy goal; have the numbers of people we interview align more closely with the breakdown of demographics in our DMA. It wasn’t a perfect proxy, but what it did do was open our content to having more perspectives that our viewers were used to in their lives and communities.
Most of us don’t spend our lives talking with “officials.” Most of us talk to people throughout our interwoven communities (social media bubbles in a pandemic will be a topic for another time), and want to hear the perspectives of real people affected by stories.
Over time—and it didn’t take very long—as we tracked who we interviewed, we made a dramatic difference in the perspectives of our stories, and in the quality of our news. It also made a big difference in our research; our ratings and our favorability scores went up with every demo.
If you’re in local news, and you’ve been tasked with raising ratings in a particular demo, I hope that you, too, will focus on your content and your community. Because that’s what your viewers will focus on.
Tim Wolff is Vice President of TV and Digital Publishing Innovation at Futuri. He has 20+ years of experience as a digital and broadcasting leader who’s led top-performing teams across the country at companies including Gannet, Belo, and Cox Media Group Ohio, which includes three daily newspapers, three radio stations, WHIO-TV, and more. Wolff, who holds a Master’s in Journalism from the University of Missouri, also makes a mean green chile stew.