Reporters on one of our major regional newspapers are apparently instructed to address their news stories to an archetypal reader who watches Cold Feet on TV and who listens to the music of Katie Melua, Travis and Dido.
That must be quite a narrow furrow to plough every day, yet some media appear to be even more specific. Certain local radio stations are targeted at listeners whose brains have been wiped by some kind of giant magnet, and surely there can’t be many of those.
The ideal reader of the newspaper mentioned above – namely the Liverpool Daily Post – was revealed in a research paper published recently in the journal Journalism Studies. Of course, the policy might be one of those bright ideas that nobody bothers communicating to the newsroom; and given how long it normally takes for academic research to be enshrined in print, it is no doubt out of date anyway.
Today’s target audience might be listening to, oh I don’t know, Duffy, perhaps? Or maybe Katie Melua is still de rigueur among the Merseyside hacks’ imagined readership.
Trainee journalists are often encouraged to keep their audience in mind when constructing stories, but rarely quite so specifically. Nor, I would hope, in such a disappointingly bland way.
Knowing for whom you are supposed to be writing is clearly not a bad idea. What are their interests, what might surprise them, what knowledge can be taken for granted – if any?
Whether provided by market research or based on gut instinct, the answers to such questions are among the things that distinguish one outlet from another.
But I have to admit that, if instructed to write news stories for Travis fans, I would be tempted to begin every intro with: ‘Oi you, stop listening to Travis and read this!’That could prove a little distracting.
Apart from the not-so-little matter of personal taste about culture, what worries me about over-targeted journalism is that it always seems to be commercially driven. The trend often seems to be to aim for more aspirational readers, presumably in the hope that they will prove most attractive to potential advertisers.
If anyone takes such instructions seriously – and that’s a big if – then the result is more stories for and about supposedly aspirational people and fewer stories about mums finding syringes in their gardens; lots of stories about planes, trains and automobiles and hardly any about buses; stories about social housing being squeezed out by yet another piece on house prices. It is treating people as consumers first and as citizens second, if at all.
So, although trainee journalists will continue to be encouraged to think of the reader as they write, does it always have to be the same deadly dull reader?
Not any more. I’ve had enough of the bland leading the bland. In the coming year I think I’ll ask my journalism students to imagine they are writing for someone who listens to Half Man Half Biscuit. That should make life a little more interesting for all of us.
Tony Harcup is the author of The Ethical Journalist and teaches journalism at the University of Sheffield