Sustaining Rural Journalism

Readers need news organizations to help them navigate their ‘world’

Published April 2024

By Benjy Hamm,
Director, Institute for Rural Journalism

One of the primary roles of news organizations is to help readers better understand the world around them – even if that “world” might be just the small community in which they live and work.

For journalists, this role can take various forms and is crucial as we try to engage readers and inform our communities. One example is when voters who want to know more about candidates for public office turn to news organizations for trusted coverage of where they stand on the issues. Likewise, readers interested in a new development project depend on journalists to provide details they’re unlikely to uncover on their own.

David Weaver, a former journalism professor at Indiana University and author of many readership studies in the Midwest, had a term to identify this crucial interaction between the audience and media. Readers have a “need for orientation” and turn to the media to meet those needs.  

Understanding how need for orientation works can help journalists identify ways their newspapers, newsletters, websites and social media accounts can increase readership while providing a valuable service for the community.

One simple way to understand this is to think about a vacation you will take soon to an area you have never visited. Suddenly, you have a high need to know more. What information will be important to help you with the trip? You’ll want to know the weather forecast, things to do, best places to stay and where to eat, among other things.

Now think about how that applies to your readers and potential readers. Every day, they seek specific information from your news organization to help them better understand and navigate the world around them.

When I moved to a new area 20 years ago, my “need for orientation” included nearly everything and involved a lot of questions – which schools were the best ones for my children, how and when should we register for youth soccer leagues, who were my representatives on city council and in the state legislature, and why was the main road to my neighborhood under repair for so long?

The local newspaper and its website answered many of those questions – if not immediately, then over time.

How effectively does your website and newspaper serve newcomers and visitors to the community? Are you providing helpful tools for readers to find the information they need? Do your news stories regularly include links to prior coverage that provides essential context for current discussions and decisions? Do you include maps and graphics that enhance the stories?

People new to the community aren’t the only ones who need that type of information. In fact, your longtime readers depend heavily on you to help them, too. They seek orientation about new projects, governmental actions, weddings, crime, taxes, deaths, cultural events, severe weather and much more.

Newspapers once were the primary method of obtaining this information before the internet and social media came along. In this new era, we need to be intentional and strategic in thinking about what information people need, when are they most likely to need or want it, and how we can provide that information in a way that is easily accessible to them.

You can do this by taking a few simple steps:

  • At the initial planning stage, identify why readers would care and the questions they’ll have. Answer those questions through your coverage.
  • Write articles from the perspective of readers. Too many government stories are written from the perspective of government officials, with jargon and process-focused coverage that’s hard for readers to decipher. Focus on the impact of the actions, not the process.
  • Use quick brainstorming sessions to identify new ideas for coverage of ongoing news or upcoming events. Include non-journalists in those sessions, because people outside the newsroom can offer a different perspective.
  • Incorporate need for orientation in as many stories as possible. For example, if a high school football team makes the playoffs, sportswriters will typically preview the game. But what readers also need to know is where the opponent’s stadium is located, the cost of tickets, how to purchase them and other details about attending the game.
  • Festivals and events are good opportunities to provide essential information. Ex. schedule of events, details about competing in the county fair, a map of the July 4 parade route. That information also should be prominent on your website leading up to the events.
  • Create an abundance of evergreen material – information that needs less updating – on your website for readers, such as contact information for public officials, schedules for public meetings, a map of your office location, etc.
  • Timing is crucial. I voted early one year and a few days after casting my ballot received an email notice from the local newspaper that its voter guide was now available. The staff spent a lot of time compiling information that was of little use to the many readers who had voted already.

If you help readers regularly solve their need for orientation, it will make your newspaper and online site more valuable to them – and to your community.

Benjy Hamm is director of the Institute for Rural Journalism, which is based at the University of Kentucky.