Who are we writing for – and would I read this?

They called her Jane, and she worked at the local hospital.

I think her husband might have been called Dave, and they had two children.

The Bath radio station that invented that Jane as its target listener no longer exists.

But the idea of a target audience character remains relevant, even if the waters have been muddied in a multimedia age when people are increasingly choosing their own news from multiple sources.

When I started at my last paper, The Bath Chronicle, a mythical figure called Mrs Oldfield Park held sway in conference, with this 60something acting as an unseen copytaster.

In more recent years, I had a picture of the family from the hit TV show Outnumbered by my computer, where they were also the screen wallpaper.

And the striving but struggling middle class family remain something of a guiding light, with their concerns and interests at the forefront of news decision-making.

But we can get these things wrong, or at least be misled by our own preconceptions about what interests our target reader.

When I recently gently challenged a reporter aged in her early 20s over the merits of a story about the planning process, she argued that her 60/70something readers would be interested.

Crucially, however, she acknowledged that she wouldn’t have been bothered.

Bath Chronicle editor Lynne Fernquest has just been through a root and branch review of the paper’s content, asking her staff which stories they find attractive and intriguing.

The answers were, like my conversation with the reporter, enlightening.

Pages would have been turned rapidly past a fair bit of content, it emerged.

Over the last few weeks, I have been trying to persuade reporters to trust their own instincts more regularly on this subject.

The questions ‘would I read this?’ or ‘would I be interested in this?’ are fair ones to ask, whether the writer is 21 or 61.

Occasionally, the phrases ‘…if I had kids’, or ‘…if I owned a house’ could usefully be added to those questions.

But they’re a good start.

Too often we cover stuff because it’s there, because it arrives in a reasonable usable form in our inboxes, rather than because it’s the right, relevant, interesting and challenging content.

And we also tend to follow the angles which are suggested by press releases.

I’m not saying we don’t spot decent lines buried by cynical spin doctors, just that organisations tend to play up administrative arrangements, partnerships and the like rather than the beef of what will affect and interest real people.

So it’s important to remember who we are actually writing for.

And it’s not politicians, council officials or NHS managers.

Our own website analytics and Google Trends can give us useful pointers on what people are really interested in, rather than what they say they are.

Having said all that, it’s worth stressing that there is a difference between abandoning political coverage and ensuring that it is relevant and compelling.

Just as there is a difference between overwritten stories and a decent, intriguing, well-written, long read, with plenty of human interest angles and a healthy dose of analysis.

So let me be clear.

I’m not saying don’t write about green belt policy, health overspends, or council chamber bust-ups.

Au contraire.

But prioritising the dull but worthy runs the risk of us committing the third worst sin in journalism after inaccuracy and unfairness – that of being boring.

At times, we do need to take the news agenda by the scruff of its neck, and force ourselves to face some challenging questions.

‘Does this matter?’ is one.

But ‘would I read this?’ is probably the best one of all.


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