Four ways to engage news readers amid social platform flux
With Facebook’s continued de-prioritization and divestment from news, the ongoing Twitter saga and ByteDance data security concerns, there’s a lot for newsrooms to navigate when it comes to social media platforms. API hosted a virtual participatory event and issued an interactive engagement zine to explore how newsrooms can stay connected to communities and each other, allocate limited resources to a growing variety of platforms, and re-examine what social strategies to prioritize amidst constant uncertainty. This conversation builds on the event API hosted with ONA in December.
This article is part of API Tech Talks, our new series about leveraging emerging technologies for local news. Follow along as our product strategy team continues to demystify the latest tech trends through events, articles, our Need to Know newsletter and social content.
Shay Totten, API newsroom success manager, shared the updated results of a newsroom survey he conducted in the three months following Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter. The majority of the four dozen respondents — who ranged from small, independent digital websites to national newsrooms — reported a wait-and-see attitude when it comes to relying on social platforms.
“There’s a willingness to experiment with more video-oriented social platforms and think through what those strategies would be,” Totten said.
When considering a pivot away from Twitter, a quarter of respondents said they were eyeing Instagram. TikTok (14%), LinkedIn and Facebook (11% each) were also popular choices.
Amara Aguilar, a professor of journalism at USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, co-led the event to discuss trends on emerging platforms, engaging diverse communities and social media storytelling. Aguilar partnered with Sarah Bennett, associate professor and communications and media studies department chair at Santa Ana College, to develop an interactive zine outlining 10 ways to bring engagement into newsrooms.
Aguilar shared examples of how she built engagement with Dímelo, Annenberg Media’s award-winning bilingual outlet she co-founded. Using journalists’ physical presence to fuel multiplatform content was a successful strategy for building audience engagement and user-generated content, she said.
“We’re inviting the community to submit content to us — we did this for Día de los Muertos,” Aguilar said. “Our team invited the community to share pictures and stories and loved ones they wanted to remember. We used a simple form online, but also made a physical display on campus with printouts of pictures and stories.”
The approach came together in four ways: an online form to collect content, a physical display in the community, a page on Dímelo’s website that displayed the content, and a series on Snapchat focused on Día de los Muertos.
Aguilar shared her students’ success with pop-up newsroom assignments to facilitate conversations within the community, as well as engaging more on Instagram and TikTok. “Really be thoughtful about how you respond and look through your comments — that’s one way to engage your readers on these social platforms,” she said.
Below are takeaways from breakout rooms where attendees discussed
connecting with communities offline, engaging with new audiences on social media, improving existing digital platforms and branching out to new social media platforms.
Connect with your community
In-person events such as pop-up newsrooms and maker sessions have become an increasingly popular way for newsrooms to connect with communities. Working with partners prior to an event — especially in communities that are wary or unfamiliar with the newsroom — can make in-person events more impactful.
When considering the location for a pop-up, find somewhere where people are congregating or waiting in line for food and coffee. Some newsrooms are finding more success with informal events to build trust and connect with the community.
For more structured listening sessions, offering food encourages attendance — and can serve as a sponsorship opportunity for an advertiser to pay for catering.
These events offer a way to engage people in community storytelling. Newsrooms can use this approach to broaden their coverage of a story, or as a way to build connections with underserved communities. Consider giving residents an assignment and teaching them how to document their lives on their phones. Results can be used in photo essays, community art displays or to enhance stories. This type of user-generated content may have more impact coming from a community member instead of the newsroom.
Engage new audiences on social media
Attendees discussed how their newsrooms are expanding their engagement efforts on existing social media sites and agreed that these platforms are best used for brand awareness and audience building — newsrooms’ presence on social media should be a long-term play for subscribers, not a way to generate a lot of web traffic.
Some newsrooms reported Reddit as a top traffic driver after Facebook and Twitter. However, Reddit requires an organic, personal touch — just dumping content on the site doesn’t do well and can result in getting banned. But if a reporter joins as part of a conversation, it can be a useful way to get in touch with a niche community and develop sources. One reporter wanted to get involved in their regional subreddit, and contacted the moderators with transparency and agreed to only post his own original content.
Instagram is not a good platform to tease stories in an attempt to drive traffic to your site — by teasing stories, you’re only leaving people partially informed. A holistic experience lets people feel like you’ve engaged them instead of sending them elsewhere.
WhatsApp is often used to reach international audiences and non-English language communities. More tips on building a WhatsApp community can be found here.
SMS can be useful for newsrooms with rural audiences because of difficulties accessing broadband internet, but it can be challenging to gain subscribers. A personal touch, such as in-person or one-on-one interactions, is often needed to direct people to sign up. But once people are a part of these messaging-based platforms, they may be more likely to stay engaged because they appreciate the two-way communication.
Microplatform experiments, such as Instagram Live or Twitter Spaces, have been successful for some newsrooms, especially when they can co-host with other outlets or experts. One concern, though, is that those platforms might disappear.
Overall, attendees noted that user-generated content can draw the attention of new audiences. This type of content may have more impact coming from a community member instead of the newsroom. Reporters can work with micro influencers to promote community building while getting a look at how the influencers’ audiences use those platforms.
Improve existing digital platforms
Newsrooms are trying many different channels of distribution methods to see what works. For many, that means reconsidering their website’s CMS — as newsrooms continually pivot and experiment, they might find they’ve outgrown their CMS or need to bring on new features that make their platform more adaptable.
When it comes to newsletters, editors want to create new types of targeted products while surveying current subscribers to see what different personas they fit into and what new products could be created to tailor to that group.
Pivot to new platforms
TikTok continues to be a growing attraction for newsrooms. However, smaller newsrooms without dedicated videographers on hand may struggle to create quality content. Instead of relying on multimedia experts, some newsrooms have found success with training columnists or other reporters to create visual content for TikTok. For reporters covering breaking news, instead of building a video package, it can be easier to take short clips of b-roll, which can be used with a voiceover or text to add context.
One challenge with creating content for TikTok is finding the balance between high quality and lofi content, especially when videographers are involved. Sometimes less produced content does better on TikTok — consider the “Gen Z shake.”
The security and data privacy practices of ByteDance, TikTok’s developer, are also causing concerns, as are proposed bills that would ban the app in the United States.
Attendees noted that much talked-about emerging platforms such as Clubhouse and Mastodon feel like dead ends to some newsrooms who feel their audience isn’t there.
Regardless of how these platforms evolve, the idea of news and information sharing will require the skill sets of editors, graphic designers and videographers. Visuals are increasingly versatile and can be used across print, web, newsletters and social media.
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