How do we know we’re covering the right stories?

How do we know we’re covering the right stories?

Or let me put that another way, why is it that we’ve got two ears but only one mouth?

It’s all about listening – something that perhaps journalists don’t do enough of at times.

On the one hand, we’ve got more information than we have ever had about the kind of stories that work online.

We can end up cross-eyed as we follow the analytics on Twitter and Facebook and via tools such as Chartbeat and Omniture.

And there isn’t any great magic or surprise about the stories that end up being runaway successes, both online and in print.

Number one will always be tragedy – whether the individual death of someone who has touched a community, or the shockwaves of a major emergency incident or crime.

And there are other traditional bankers such as whacky court cases and updates on familiar landmarks which we know will be the sort of content that is both widely shared online as well as the basis for healthy print sales.

But we – and the analytics – don’t have all the answers.

Which is why this fascinating piece about people-powered journalism caught my eye this morning.

It’s all about finding ways of pinning down what really concerns our existing readers and browsers – and the ones who engage with us on a very haphazard basis.

There are some caveats with all of this.

The organisation at the centre of this article, Hearken, is based in America where, as we all know, news providers seem to have reporters coming out of their ears, along with freelance budgets comparable to the GDPs of small African nations.

But there is an important message here.

Despite the avalanche of analytical information at our disposal, and despite the social media revolution, there is a danger that journalists are more insulated and isolated from their audiences than ever before.

As a news editor, readers used to drive me mad on a regular basis.

But seeing them face to face, finding out about their complaints, concerns and celebrations, was also a form of oxygen.

Now and again, we need to break out of the copytasting straightjacket.

There are all sorts of ways in which we can use our own websites and social media accounts to ask people what they think we should be covering.

But we should also make the most of the ‘civvies’ around us – the non-journalists with whom we work, and the real readers whose paths we cross.

The last thing I want is to lengthen our planning meetings and conferences, but why not invite a sixth-generation resident from accounts in when we’re brainstorming?

The success of crowd-sourced Q&As such as the Guardian’s Notes and Queries and Simon Mayo’s Homework Sucks shows that the imagination and curiosity of the public know no bounds.

We just need to find better ways of tapping into them, better ways of answering the questions that matter, and better ways of putting our coverage at the relevant centre of more people’s lives.

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