Q&A: Stephanie Kuo

The disconnect between reporters and their audience is endemic to journalism, a field conceived and dominated by white, cis, and heterosexual men. ​​It’s something that has stayed constant since the 1968 release of the Kerner Commission Report, which, among other things, highlighted the media’s failure to connect with Black people during riots in the 1960s, contributing to sensationalized and fundamentally flawed coverage. 

Some newsrooms are trying to change through engagement, or “audience-first” journalism, a philosophy making its way through newsrooms big and small. That choice to change is informed not only by the changing media landscape, but also a failure to reach non-white audiences throughout the country who feel misrepresented by news media. Hearken, a company started in 2016 out of a project to answer audience questions via WBEZ, helps newsrooms engage with the communities they serve and shift story priorities toward audience needs

One person heavily invested in how newsrooms interact with communities is Stephanie Kuo, a former public radio journalist at NPR affiliate KERA, who sees human-centered design as another, more direct way to engage and serve communities. She left journalism in 2018 after 5 years in the industry to produce and host the podcast Racist Sandwich.

The Objective spoke with Kuo, who’s now director of training for PRX, a company that aims to make the podcast industry more accessible by providing mentorship, resource-sharing, education, and training. Since stepping away from the field to participate in a journalism-adjacent space, Kuo has seen how human-centered design goes hand-in-hand with audience-first journalism.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

Tell me about how you came to practicing audience-first principles. Did that happen when you were in journalism?

I didn’t really think about audience-first. And it really wasn’t quite the concept or the buzz that it is today when I was in journalism. It wasn’t really part of my operating philosophy or my professional philosophy until I became an early career fellow for Next Generation Radio.

There, I was introduced to the NPR Story Lab Blueprint, which is a packet that basically forces you to audit an idea that you have by asking yourself, “Can you tell me what it’s about? Who’s your audience?” All kinds of things.

It was extremely eye-opening for someone who’s never had to be intentional about content in her life. But the blueprint was developed as a formula for creating content for NPR—it didn’t actually make sense for anybody who was outside of that ecosystem.

So how did you take that blueprint and branch off from it?

Design thinking, human-centered, “audience-first”—it [all] is much more nebulous than that and can be a lot more comfortable and flexible than that blueprint. It wasn’t until I quit my job at KERA when human-centered design really became a part of my life. I was hired at PRX to be the project manager for a podcast accelerator for public radio stations called Project Catapult. The training program is 20 weeks long, and we run all those cohorts of teams through a design thinking framework.

It’s about emphasizing with your end user, understanding and defining the needs they have in their life in a collaborative, non-hierarchical way, prototyping and getting feedback, and iterating through those steps over and over again. With that mindset, you really begin to realize how adaptable design thinking can be, and how you can either think of it modularly, or from start to finish.

I did that for a podcast for about two and a half years, and then I began working with Alexandra Blair, who came from The New School’s journalism and design department, and her master’s degree was all about radicalizing journalism through audience methods. 

Working with her really opened me up to seeing how the techniques we were using in products like podcasts actually made a lot of sense for journalism. There are a lot of legacy, traditional journalists who really ruffle their feathers at the idea that journalism is a product and not a service. I think both are true—I think that it’s a service, fundamentally, but you have to think about [journalism] as a business that needs to sustain itself, you have to think about it as a product. And when you shift your mindset from being a service that you assume will be consumed or used to a product that could not be used or consumed, it really changes how you design it.  

What’s the line between letting people write for journalists and audience-first thinking? Is there a balance?

There’s a difference between audience-centered design versus letting audiences dictate what you do, which is what most journalists get upset about, which is “We’re the fourth wall [estate]! We’re supposed to be like watchdogs!”

Absolutely, all those things, but in any aspect of journalism, many people design-think things—the literal types of stories you tell, the offshoots of products to make as an organization. You can design things, the tone, the style of writing and the branding of a newspaper organization. The whole point [of audience-first thinking] is that you, as the creator of content, should not be trusted to be the only voice.

Why do you think some of those more “traditional” journalists might be hesitant to embrace an audience-first philosophy?

I think the key difference is that, you go back 60, 70 years, and there were only so many different avenues for news and information consumption that people didn’t have to worry about product and branding, or whatever. And I make this point that it matters now because the landscape has diversified so much. I don’t have to go to the New York Times anymore, or NPR, if I don’t want to. I can get my news from Twitter and curate my news however I want.

I think, often, the world journalists live in is idealized with virtue signaling: “You should want this, it shouldn’t be about money.” But do you want to get paid? Because if you want to get paid, your institution has to be able to make money; you need to see yourself as competitors in the landscape. Your audience does matter, and what you want to do doesn’t matter as much anymore. I used to also bristle at the idea of “Let your audience inform your content,” because what I often think of and what a lot of journalists revert to is Hearken.

As much as I love it, I think the execution of Hearken is “Submit questions, and we’ll answer them in journalism.” I don’t think that’s actually the full potential use of Hearken, which is seeing patterns in the questions and creating content that’s relevant to listeners. 

What I’m advocating for is that journalists listen more than they talk. Listen for what people really want to hear. And the problem, too, is that we claim to talk to a lot of people, but we talk to sources. I’m not asking you to talk to sources, I’m asking you to talk to your audience, but people don’t do that because they don’t think audience matters. But we’re moving to a world where that’s not actually true anymore. 

One thing I’m curious about is, ostensibly, audience should have always mattered. So why do you think something that, theoretically, should be an underlying principle of journalism, is so novel? 

I think it’s paternalism that’s actually a defining characteristic of journalism and journalists in traditional media. “You are inherently the center of my work, because I don’t trust you enough to know what is good for you,” and it’s a lot of that, right? A lot of “Journalists know everything, because they’re the ones embedded in the communities, they’re the ones doing the research, but poor reader, you don’t know what’s important because you’re not steeped in your life like that.”

There’s a lot of distrust in the masses being able to educate themselves. There’s a lot of self-flagellating, like “Look at us, we’re doing so good.” But in reality, people are making work for other journalists. We make journalism for the Pulitzer Committee, for the Public Radio Journalists Association. We care about what our colleagues think of us. That is what a lot of journalism has turned into: You’re writing for each other and not for your audience.
We so often dismiss audience comments as being petulant or petty or that they don’t understand it, or they’re just “too stupid,” but I equate it to the male gaze and how men think that all women are the same, but it’s really the man projecting their ideas onto them. It’s journalists projecting their own value outwards. If you were to ask me, when I was deep in journalism, if I felt that way, I would’ve balked and said, “Impossible.” But on the other side, being able to observe journalism from this adjacent space, I can really see that. 

What do you think are some other misconceptions about audience-first journalism?

Audience-first journalism is not just about who it is that you’re trying to reach. It’s understanding the behaviors of people. I don’t care if you think your ideal reader is a liberal or progressive or whatever—that matters, but what matters more is what they do, what their habits are. Part of how they behaved probably intersects with what their ideology and backgrounds might be. But it’s more around actual consumption patterns and habits: What did they reach for? What is the first thing they like when they read? Do they reach for their phone first thing in the morning? If they do, what is the first thing they open? 

If people do a lot of research and a lot of interviewing of people—not [just collecting] survey data—they might decide that a huge part of their engagement strategy is having a TikTok because that’s actually the first app anybody opens in the morning. That is audience-centered design. They could get more information about what kind of content makes the most sense on TikTok versus Instagram versus Facebook versus print or the digital editions. The thing is no one’s asking those questions. You’re just kind of assuming you know what your audience patterns are because, I don’t know, someone told you and so you’re doing all of these things that sometimes are successful, sometimes they’re not.

But the core of audience-centered design is just: Ask. Go understand people. If you’re not sure, go ask. All human-centered design is “Don’t make assumptions.” And so that’s another thing that designers will pay attention to, goals and aspirations.

What do you mean by that?

I’ll use myself as an example. When I was in college, I subscribed to the New Yorker. I’m sure it’s gone, but the tote was a huge part of it. I subscribed to the New Yorker when I was 19 and had a lot of goals to read it every week. I never got to it. I have not read a single the New Yorker cover-to-cover ever in my life, despite being a subscriber.

But you know what I did? I carried that tote around everywhere. I presented myself as somebody who cared about the New Yorker. It was very important to me to be able to at least read some of the New Yorker, so I could talk about how I read something in the New Yorker

A person who isn’t socially conditioned to design-thinking or non-judgmental design, like my friends, might say, “Oh, Stephanie is a poser, who does she think she is?” But actually, what the New Yorker (or other outlets) could learn from someone like me is the specific age range of subscribers. What the value of being associated with someone means to them, and creating a business, promotion, or content strategy around this quite large readership of 18-to-24 year olds who all subscribe, but never read. As a designer, it’s my instinct to ask, “What is going on there?” Not just making guesses or trying to find data points, but assembling a group of 30 people in that range and asking them to tell you more. What is happening? What are we missing? What is my data not telling me about you—are you just super busy, are there barriers to being able to listen, are there things competing for your attention? What are your ideals around the New Yorker

Our listener could be informed watching CNN, but they go to NPR for a reason, and there needs to be a huge, concerted audit of the audience motivations of why [choose] NPR, above all things. For some reason, people walk out of listening to a three-minute spot on NPR feeling like they know everything. NPR makes assumptions about who listeners are and should be, but what they’ve done a bad job of doing is capturing an actual comprehensive picture of the U.S. My coworker told me that over 50% of non-white households don’t know what NPR is or have no connection to NPR whatsoever. More than half of this country has no idea what your brand is, and you don’t care.

We’ve been talking about news organizations with a bigger reach and more resources. But how can newsrooms with fewer resources start practicing audience-first journalism?

The thing about audience-first design is, you understand who your audience currently is. But the audience is going to die one day. Are you ready to cater to their children? Their friends? Do you want there to be trust in non-white communities? The issue is that newsrooms lack the actual next steps.

It can exist on two levels: It could be a concerted effort that your entire newsroom takes on, or from a reporter on a beat who really cares about making sure that they’re making content that doesn’t just serve yourself or nonprofits. You talk to your own focus groups. For example, if your beat was mental health, you can do your own audience research: You’d talk to a bunch of people about what matters to them in that space, what inclusive mental health coverage looks like to them, that sort of thing.

And for organizations, there are four different phases:

The first one is user research and empathy. Has your organization done full-on market research of your readers? You couple that with empathy—can you go do interviews with your listeners and really understand who they are and what they care about, what their beliefs and goals are?

The second is: Can you do extremely collaborative brainstorms with your organization? Not the kind where the editor sits at the head of the table and just says yes or no to things, or takes you on tangents where you’re not really talking about anything. The kind where you have collaborative conversations based off the needs that you identify from the user research collection. 

Then, prototyping and getting feedback. Can you build any more time into your deadlines to get multiple rounds of edits or take your stories to potential audience members and ask, “What can make this story better? What can make this project better?” [Getting] that feedback and then iterating, making more drafts until it’s ready.

The fourth thing is team retrospectives. After a big project, your whole team comes together and talks about what went well and what didn’t. How might we make something better in the future? 

Where do you see room for collaborative, not competitive, models grounded in audience-first journalism?  

I think The Texas Tribune and the public radio stations across Texas are good examples of where that happens. They’re all nonprofit newsrooms that are just trying to grow each other’s audiences. The Texas Tribune will take audio stories that stations produce and put them on their website as a way to grow [its] audience base or the public radio audience base.

Ultimately, the truth about competition in the journalism space has been civil and singular: We’re competitors because it’s about getting the news first. But I think another definition of competition is, are we doing it quickly and well enough? Are we doing it in a way that satisfies readers? I think competing newsrooms in a single city can establish what they’re good at, and it’s a matter of reframing what we mean by competition. 

Audience-first, human-centered design is really a thing that has to be practiced over and over and over again. I can teach modules and rules, different frameworks, but what I’m advocating for in newsrooms are full cultural changes that happen modularly. You can’t feedback session your way to a shift; it has to come from the top down and it takes a lot of work. It really is about changing the landscape rather than introducing little things.

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The Objective is a nonprofit newsroom holding journalism accountable for past and current systemic biases in reporting and newsroom practices. We are written by and for those underrepresented in journalism.

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