Why should a reader care? A question you need to answer in all media writing

As part of a book I’m putting together for introduction to mass communication courses, I decided to break out key events and important people in an expanded timeline. In doing this, I added a chunk of text under each one of the points that I titled, “Why You Should Care.”

The folks at SAGE, and at least one reviewer, thought this was kind of jarring, almost a snarky affront to educational standards. Me? I thought it was common sense, given that if I can’t tell you why you should care about something, well… Why would you?

In today’s media climate, more and more sources are disseminating more and more messages  more and more frequently and in louder and louder ways. The idea, at least based on what I’m seeing out there, is that if we scream something loudly enough and do it often enough, people will eventually start to think, “Well, I guess that’s important.” In truth, we have often found that this repetition becomes more of an annoyance than anything else, plus once we stop bludgeoning people with those messages, they eventually stop caring about them.

When it comes to all forms of media writing, you need to be able to tell people not just WHAT happened, but also the “So What?” aspect of it, as one of my old bosses would say. If you can’t do that, you’re not coming at the content from an audience-centric perspective. You’re just cranking content out of a grist mill.

Here are two conversations I had with people this week who work in the field that really drove that home for me:

The first was a conversation with a student who is graduating and currently works as the main reporter at a small-market local news operation. He was grousing about how hard it is to get people to see value in his paper and his stories.

He told me that people care about certain things in the region he covers and he writes about those things, so why is it more people aren’t reading what he’s writing?

“How do you know that?” I asked him. “How do you know that they care about X, Y or Z?”

“Well, they SHOULD care…” he replied, leading me to understand what the problem was.

Journalists have long adopted the philosophy that we know best when it comes to what matters to our readers. For quite some time, we were right about that, almost entirely by accident.

Reporters lived in the areas they covered, earned wages similar to the people for whom they wrote and dealt with the same problems as their readers. In addition, they were integral members of the community, so people TOLD them things that mattered to them and thus the reporters used that insight to cover things of interest.

That’s not the case anymore today, so we have to work a lot harder to figure out what matters to the readers and we have to compete with a lot more voices that are drowning us out.

It’s no longer enough to write about a city council meeting and figure that our readers are going to figure out why it matters or what happened of value. We can’t assume that readers are going to look at the paper or our website and think, “Hey, I bet these folks have all the answers. Let me carefully and deliberately examine their content and assess it through a high level of critical thinking.”

As fast as things move these days, you have to tell people, “Hey, look over here! This matters because….” It’s like trying to feed your dog a pill some days, but once you get good at it, it becomes easier the next time, as people will continue to use media that shows them value.

The second conversation was with a colleague who teaches PR in our department. We were commiserating over the way in which students were writing stories and press releases.

What we both realized was that our students were going in one of two directions with their opening paragraphs:

  1. “An event is occurring. You now know this.”
  2. Welcome to hyperbole central, in which we make the intro to “The Muppet Show” look subdued by comparison.

When she told the students to dial down the hyperbole, they essentially went back and wrote the “An event is occurring” paragraph. They then groused that the opening was boring.

“Well, you better find something that makes it interesting,” she said she tells the kids. “If you don’t care about something, why should a reporter?”

It’s a good point and one that can go even a step further: If the reporter actually goes to the event and only can report that the event occurred, why will the readers care? There has to be SOMETHING that made the reporter think the event was worth covering or SOMETHING that came out of it that can be of value to the readers.

If you can’t find that as a writer of any form of media, you’re in trouble. Advertisers can’t just write, “Buy my stuff. It’s available.” News writers can’t put out a story that says, “Something happened and I went there to look at it.” PR professionals can’t send out press releases that note, “Our client is doing a thing that you can look at. C’mon over.”

This is why audience centricity and the interest elements of Fame, Oddity, Conflict, Immediacy and Impact need to be at the forefront of your mind as a writer. What do you know about your audience’s needs and what interest element or elements might grab their attention so you can fulfill those needs?

In other words, tell people why they should care in a simple and direct way. After that, they’ll keep coming back for more.

One thought on “Why should a reader care? A question you need to answer in all media writing

  1. More than 30 years ago, when I was first hired as a reporter for a small market newspaper, I already had a ton of writing experience but it was all in the academe–I have two degrees in English with a concentration in literature. After my excellent editor taught me how to write in a journalistic style, (He was a pre-law, poly sci major in college–neither of us actually studied journalism), he taught me two very important lessons: 1. lead with a story and 2. think about why our readers should care about what we write. I took this same information through a career that also included public relations before I landed once again in a college classroom and I use it today constantly. Lead with a story and know your audience.

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