How to engage your audiences in 5 key steps
Engaging audiences in journalism can take many forms, ranging in scope from small actions to immersive projects.
There is no single formula for the best way to move from producing content to more fully listening and engaging with audiences. The most successful engagement efforts can look different and yield different results — from a couple questions posted on social media to an event designed to bring journalists and communities together. What they have in common is that they connect with communities of interest and develop relationships with them. You are not simply delivering a product.
Another important element in getting started is understanding that no good effort at engagement can be completed in just one step, one task to cross off a to-do list. Instead, engagement strategies unfold as a series of back-and-forth interactions between journalists and members of the public. They involve requests and responses, which then require gratitude and acknowledgment.
You are not simply delivering a product.
The principle behind effective engagement, those who have been involved in this effort say, is this: Whatever you do, make sure the members of a community know you value them — both by treating them with respect and by showing them that together, they have important things to teach each other.
If you miss the opportunity to show you value public collaboration, the people you motivate to strengthen your journalism may not do it again.
Seize the opportunities to unite people around their interests, however, and you’ll find that your efforts to engage these communities will get easier and more productive. In that ideal scenario, the engagement process becomes a cycle. One that grows stronger with each iteration, and looks to develop connections with the audience not just for the sake of the current project, but for all the projects still ahead.
From the various people I talked to, I heard what boiled down to five steps that are involved in successful audience engagement efforts.
- Target your outreach
- Invite valuable contributions
- Cultivate strong interaction
- Honor community work
- Learn and improve
Step 1: Target your outreach
Connecting with the public has so far been considered an afterthought in much of journalism — one of the last things you do in the life cycle of a story rather than one of the first. For that reason, we’ve gotten used to engaging on the fly: throwing up a tweet, asking the first question that occurs to us to spark conversation on a public forum.
To do engagement well, to learn from it and to ensure it connects with the people your work should reach, it is important to think it through. Before you begin, get a sense of what you and the people you work with can achieve.
Who do you want to reach?
When journalists ask themselves who their work is for, it’s easy to answer, “Everyone.” But to rise above the noise of digital communication, it helps to target your outreach to a more narrow group.
To identify what communities your work ought to involve, consider the beat, topic or issue you’re exploring. The key question to ask, as phrased by engagement strategist Joy Mayer, former director of community outreach at the Columbia Missourian, is this: “Who’s already talking about what you’re covering?”
When ProPublica and NPR exposed how the American Red Cross had squandered aid funds after the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti, their story became the most-read piece in ProPublica’s history. Much of the story’s spread was social; 40 percent of its 914,000 page views came from Facebook.
Reporters and editors knew, however, that the people most intimately impacted by the story — the Haitians on the receiving end of the Red Cross’s inaction — would not read an English-language story. To engage them, ProPublica translated the story into Haiti’s native French and paid a small amount to boost it to Facebook users in the country. The French story went on to earn 153,000 page views, with 84 percent of that traffic coming from Facebook.
“The Haiti story is a great example of an engaged audience making the case for impact,” ProPublica senior engagement editor Amanda Zamora wrote via email. “We hit both mass and niche audiences, and when we’re able to get people on both ends of that spectrum to pay attention, that’s when we see action.”
Editors’ outreach to the people most impacted by the Red Cross story helped ensure the story’s power. Weeks after the story was published, Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Sen. Charles Grassley sent Red Cross CEO Gail McGovern a list of questions and a deadline to account for the charity’s spending in Haiti.
“We’re still waiting for answers,” Zamora wrote.
What do you hope to learn, spark or build?
When news publishers engage audiences in their work, it is difficult to predict precisely what kinds of contributions they will get as a result. Even so, it is helpful to have an idea of what you hope to accomplish.
Whether your goal in engaging people is as simple as sparking an interesting conversation or finding the answer to an intriguing, ambitious question, “what you want to do” and “who you need to reach” are closely linked decisions.
This spring, staff at The Guardian decided to count something that no public agency was reliably counting: The number of people killed by police officers in the U.S.
Because the members of The Guardian’s team knew they couldn’t do it all on their own, they asked for help from the public. On June 1, 2015, the Guardian launched its project, The Counted, and laid out a thorough description of what it was looking for — tips, details, resources — and what kind of incidents did or did not fit the bill.
Notably, The Guardian did not launch with a blank page. Its reporters gathered what they could from news reports and crime databases to give the count a solid start. That showed their commitment to seeing a tough task through, which strengthened their engagement. Many people, including relatives of those killed by police, sent in tips. As often happens with project-based communities, a small, core group of regular contributors provided many of the tips.
By the end of 2015, The Guardian had counted 1,138 cases of people being killed by police, and both the Department of Justice and the FBI had announced plans to ensure the government keeps better track of these figures (the 2015 count has since increased to 1,145).
It’s easier to help someone who knows what they’re building, especially if they’ve already begun. Whenever you want the community to contribute, it is always helpful, I heard over and over, to seed your request with examples of what you are looking for.
When will you invite participation from the public?
Creating the news with people, rather than for them, puts them at the start of the process, as Josh Stearns of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation has noted. The sooner you involve your audience in your story, the more invested they can be in the project, and the richer and more popular the coverage can be.
Meg Pickard, former engagement editor for The Guardian, developed a framework that considers community outreach before publication as untapped opportunity. The chart below, drawn up by Joy Mayer, is one of the most-cited resources to explain where engagement can do the most good:
There is, though, such a thing as involving the public too much too soon. Journalists who design interactive projects agree that the sweet spot can be tricky to find.
If you’re reporting on a sensitive or complicated issue, think about the legwork you need to do to put it in context, and make sure you’ve gathered and structured that foundational material before you throw open the doors too wide.
But don’t be too quiet: Private, limited-audience outreach to the right communities can still add value to your reporting as you’re doing it, particularly as you’re gathering accounts or looking for interview subjects. Even a broad call-out on social media networks, carefully worded if necessary, can bring unexpected sources if your network trusts you enough to point them your way.
As for uncomplicated issues, involving the public too early means asking for help before you’ve articulated why they should be involved, or before you’re able to demonstrate that you’re committed to a difficult project.
Where do you go to connect?
If you want to involve new audiences in your work, you will need to go somewhere new to find them.
Where will you go to find the people you want to engage in your work? Wherever people are already talking about what you’re covering. Is there a website, group, or even a hashtag that’s bringing together a conversation? Consider offline activities, too: Where are people gathering in the real world to discuss their interest in your beat or topic?
When Columbia Missourian reporters were working on a series of features about local history, they went to a popular Facebook group called “You know you’re from Columbia MO when…” There, thousands of people were connecting over their shared lives in their town. Over the course of three weeks, Missourian reporters asked three questions of the group, about their favorite teachers growing up, their favorite hangouts and their first jobs, noting that some answers would be published in the paper and online.
Hundreds of people reminisced, and the resulting stories — collections of the richest answers — were widely read and shared.
“This is like the easiest possible content,” Joy Mayer said.
In another example, Missourian staff went offline to find a target audience. The paper had produced a package of stories about the 100th anniversary of Hickman High School’s unusual Kewpie doll mascot. It knew it wanted to reach the school community, particularly fans of its sports teams. So in addition to posting in Facebook groups where alumni hung out and tweeting school-related Twitter accounts, they printed teasers to the stories on paper fliers and handed them out at the stadium during that weekend’s game.
More than half the people who received the fliers went on to visit the link to the coverage, staff learned after tracking clicks on the custom link. Their creative community-seeking even brought in a little money: The local booster club, when staff emailed them about the handout, agreed to sponsor an ad on the back for $150.
How much can you do?
Strong engagement, like strong stories, takes time and resources to develop, and not everyone has the capacity to do everything. Many efforts start strong and end with little to show because the initial enthusiasm didn’t match the newsroom’s capacity to follow through.
This goes for individual engagements — will you have the time to figure out what to do with the contributions you get? — as well as an organization’s overall strategy. Do you have the resources to see your projects through? Do your reporters feel supported in their own engagement efforts? If not, you might discourage your staff and hurt your credibility with your community.
Anika Anand, former director of product at nonprofit education news site Chalkbeat, thought hard about what the journalists at Chalkbeat’s bureaus could reasonably do to engage their communities. She also considered which strategies would have the highest return on investment. She settled, at the time, on strategies involving online reporter interaction with readers, hosting key events, and building a database of sources and influencers to fuel outreach and community development.
While an objective assessment of your time and resources helps you learn what you’re capable of, there’s something to be said here for inclination. For some journalists, much of the work of engagement is not only interesting, but fun. That cuts less into their time, or at least, it feels like less of a burden. Identifying and empowering these journalists can be a big step for news organizations, as I’ll discuss in the section on building engaging newsrooms.
Step 2: Invite valuable contributions
You’ve thought about who you want to reach, where you will go to reach them and when in the reporting process you want to involve them. Now it’s time to spark that involvement. Usually, you’ll want to invite your community to participate in your journalism by making a request, either for material or just to start a conversation.
There are several things you should ask yourself when deciding what to request from your community, and how. Here we’ll look at a few:
- Are you asking for something you will use?
- Are you making it easy for people to contribute?
- Are you rewarding your community for participating?
- Are you asking good questions?
Value: Are you asking for something you will use?
The first thing to consider when you make a request of your community is whether what you are asking for has real value. If you’re asking for ideas or material, will it actually influence your work? If you’re sparking a conversation, is it one the community will want to have, and value you for guiding?
The civic tech organization Code for America has articulated best practices in public engagement for its staff that are valuable to anyone looking to connect with communities — especially journalists. One of its most useful directives to staff is to consider what they’ll do with public contributions before they ask for them:
“Make sure what you are asking people to do will actually add value to your work. Otherwise, you won’t use it and people will feel discouraged.”
You don’t need to incorporate all the material your community contributes. But if you don’t use any material, use it dismissively, or, in the case of a conversation, spark what ends up being a dull or toxic dialogue, you’ll have limited the benefits of your engagement. You’ll have gained little, and the people who responded to your request will have not felt their contributions made a difference. They may hesitate to collaborate with you again.
Access: Are you making it easy for people to contribute?
Once you’re sure the contributions you seek will be valuable to your work, you’ll want to structure your request so it draws as many strong contributions as possible.
If you’re asking your community to share material with you, you’ll want to be clear about what you’re looking for, how contributors should participate, and how you plan to use their contributions. Providing this information helps establish trust and minimize confusion. Most importantly, it helps draw useful material.
If you’re asking for people to share personal, complicated or delicate material, it will help to provide private as well as public ways to share that information.
Thirdly, it’s smart when making requests of your community to invite their feedback on the process. If something about your request is unclear, you’ll want to know about it. Making yourself available for feedback also allows community members who are on the fence about participating to reach out to you with any questions or doubts. That gives you a chance to enlist more good contributions.
Be clear about what you’re looking for, how contributors should participate, and how you plan to use their contributions.
The Guardian U.S.’s “The Counted” project offers a clear breakdown of how community members can contribute on its About page. In short sections with titles like “What is included in The Counted?” “What is not included in The Counted?” and “How does the Guardian define ‘armed’ and ‘unarmed’?” staff draw clear distinctions between what material is and isn’t helpful. The page then invites contributors to send information on police-related deaths via email, Facebook, Twitter and a “Send us a tip” button at the top of The Counted’s site. Mindful that the project involves government agencies, it even provides what’s called a public PGP key to allow people to contact them confidentially, and a secure drop system to allow people to share files anonymously.
The Guardian also invites people to contact them about any part of the project. And it has kept its reporting very much open to the public: With the press of a button, anyone can download the data it has collected so far. Releasing the data let people build on it. One follower of the project went so far as to develop an app that alerts users every time a new name is added to the count.
Another thing to consider when deciding what to ask of your community is how easily they can respond.
If you are accepting contributions on your own site, how many hoops do people need to jump through to do it? Is the interface clunky or confusing? Will people know what to do instinctively? People are used to doing what they want to do online in a very small number of steps. If they can’t begin tapping out the content of their contribution in seconds, many may give up and move on.
One way to dodge the problem of having to maintain your own platform for public contributions is to accept contributions on high-performing platforms with which people are already familiar, such as Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. As these platforms are already well populated and highly social, accepting contributions there has the added advantage of making your project more visible. This is why many if not most crowdsourcing projects accept contributions on social platforms.
Be mindful about the limitations of platforms, however, especially if you are using them exclusively to accept public contributions to your project. They don’t reach all demographics equally, and wide reach is hardly guaranteed. In the case of Facebook, newsrooms often spend money to boost their posts’ visibility.
Another way news organizations make it easy for their users to contribute is to do some of their work for them.
TheSkimm is a young news operation that relies on its readers’ actions to grow. It’s an email newsletter, and it secures new readers only when they have signed up to receive the daily email. One way theSkimm drew 1.5 million subscribers in three years is by making it very easy for readers to invite others in their networks to subscribe.
Each daily newsletter asks subscribers to share theSkimm and provides a link. When a user clicks on the link, she’s taken to a page where users can share invitations to the newsletter with their networks. But rather than leave users to write these invitations themselves — a time-consuming task — theSkimm provides suggested text for tweets, Facebook posts and email messages they can compose right on the page.
With its email text suggestions, theSkimm also goes one step further: It provides pre-populated, customizable text depending on which type of person a user wants to invite. Among the options are: “Co-workers you tolerate,” “Your family,” “Your college friends,” and “Mega busy moms.”
Incentive: Will people feel rewarded for participating?
People who are eager to share their knowledge with you won’t need much nudging. But journalists can work to draw participation from more than just their most vocal contributors.
A good way to to encourage broader participation, newsroom innovators say, is to ensure that people feel rewarded for their effort.
Journalist Jennifer Brandel has designed methods used successfully by many newsrooms to draw in audiences not just to their reporting, but to their story selection. She was the founder of Curious City, a project she developed jointly with Chicago Public Media’s WBEZ and the Association of Independents in Radio’s Localore project that invites locals to share what they’re curious about and select from among their submissions which of their questions they’d like reporters to explore. She has since spun off the technology behind the project into a startup called Hearken.
Brandel created a useful checklist for encouraging newsrooms to engage in audience participation. Among its six items is this question: “What rewards are you offering for participating? Would you act on those rewards?”
Brandel explained that the rewards you offer potential contributors can be subtle. When someone submits a story idea to the Curious City project, for example, that contributor has a chance to see other locals support it. If it’s selected by the newsroom to be fleshed out and reported, the reporter may invite the contributor along to her interviews.
Investing deeply in participant rewards can pay off. One of the most important contributors to theSkimm’s quick growth is its “Skimm’bassador” rewards program.
When theSkimm sends out the day’s newsletter, it encourages users to share the newsletter with friends. It also provides each recipient with her own unique link to share that her friends can click to be taken to the sign-up page. These unique links allow theSkimm to track how many people sign up to the newsletter because of a particular recipient’s sharing action.
The fact that theSkimm can draw this straight line between one user’s action and its results allows it to reward its users for sharing the newsletter in a powerful way. When a subscriber’s shares result in 10 new subscriptions, that subscriber becomes a “Skimm’bassador.” She is then eligible for extra perks, including membership in a lively closed Facebook community and recognition in the newsletter. Importantly, any subscriber can check how many people have signed up to theSkimm via their link at any time. TheSkimm had 200 Skimm’bassadors in the summer of 2014. By summer 2015, it had 6,000.
While news organizations may prefer a different tone, the notion of helping your audience share, making it easy for them and rewarding them for it is one that can be employed in many ways.
Prompt: Are you asking good questions?
If you’re asking your community to share its own knowledge and experiences, it’s best to ask questions that draw those out easily and thoughtfully. Ask questions that are too broad, too vague or too convoluted, and the responses — if you get them — may miss the mark. Asking questions that lead to more reaction than reflection can have the same negative result.
Sharon Chan at The Seattle Times found that the questions “What do you wish you had known about college ahead of time?” and “How do you save money on textbooks?” sparked good conversations around its Education Lab coverage. The question “Would you hire someone who dropped out of high school?” drew out too much negativity. The question “Based on your own personal experience as a parent, student or teacher, what helps students who are behind catch up?” was too broad to get much response at all.
Many news organizations offer a space for conversation to happen, usually at the bottoms of their stories. In many cases, though, they do little to prompt conversation in those spaces with a specific question or theme.
These open forums — the familiar comment threads — give people the freedom to bring up anything in association with a story. They are also, however, more likely to attract reactionary comments from people who are already eager to say something. Often, those comments are angry and disruptive, leading many journalists to dismiss comment sections as a failed experiment in engaging the public. But there is reason to believe that the toxicity of some comment threads is a problem of their design and management, rather than an accurate reflection of the value communities can bring.
Sparking good conversations takes work. A key to asking the right questions, Chan and others said, is just to take the time to think about which questions to ask. Will your question inspire thoughtful reflection people could build on to improve their understanding, or shallow reaction that could alienate readers and degrade the work?
Some of the best reflection comes when people share stories. The Listening Post Macon is a community media project that gathers local perspectives by texting with a community of residents. When it wanted to convene a conversation on gun violence, it asked its community a series of questions, starting with an easy one: “Do you own a gun?” When a local responded with “Yes” or “No” to that question, The Listening Post followed up with a second question: “Why or why not?”
But it wasn’t until Listening Post journalists accompanied that follow-up question with another — “Why or why not? What have you experienced that shapes your attitude toward guns?” — that the most compelling stories came in, including one from a woman whose son had been shot and killed and who wanted her remaining children to know how to defend themselves.
“On social media and in comments, there’s an open box to type into, but it’s not as if someone’s tapping you on the shoulder saying, ‘Tell me your story.’” Andrew Haeg, founder of GroundSource, the company that powers The Listening Post’s text-based platform, told Nieman Lab. “That’s an endlessly compelling request for most people, and if they know someone is listening and that there’s a purpose for it, they will step forward and tell it.”
Step 3: Cultivate strong interaction
Once you’ve asked the public to get involved in your work, it might seem like your next move is to sit back and see what you get.
But if you want your engagement to have its maximum effect, there are two important things you can do to fuel it. You can reach out directly to people who draw the strongest contributions, and you can participate in the discussion or exchange of material yourself.
Reach out to influencers and influential communities
In any community of interest, there are people or groups who have an outsized influence. They might lead activity, spark new ideas or channel conversation.
When these influencers participate and share your project early on, word of what you’re doing spreads more quickly and more people who respect those people are likely to participate. You’ll also gather stronger material for a more relatable story that more people will want to share. For that reason, it’s worth spending the time it takes to reach influencers directly and ask them to weigh in — whether you connect by phone, email, or a simple ping on social media — and to build relationships with them that support your future work.
When the Columbia Missourian wanted to cover the 100th anniversary of the unusual Hickman High School Kewpie doll mascot, it reached out to the local community and a key influencer in a single post:
Tagging the school’s football team in the post drew a strong voice early in the conversation. But the post, which was shared 200 times and reached 15,000 people on Facebook, was particularly effective for another reason. Using just a few words, it invited people to tag the “people you know will want to weigh in.”
The Missourian reached out to an obvious influencer it could identify — the Hickman High football team. But it also tapped the community’s knowledge to find influencers who are not so obvious. Hundreds of thoughtful comments later, it had material for a strong series on the mascot’s history.
There are other ways that engaging a community’s most influential members helps you engage the whole community. A key way, journalists active in engagement projects say, is to speak with them — in a style and language that feels familiar.
Speaking a community’s language is a challenge in spaces where people have developed unique ways of communicating and outsiders stick out. The communities on online forum site Reddit are so distinctive, for example, that a developer created a game in which people try to match a user comment with the forum in which it was posted.
Snapchat is a popular platform whose mostly young mobile users communicate with pictures and videos they enhance with drawings or text. To bring its news and brand to the app’s engaged user base, CBS News has given some of its younger staffers free rein to post to its Snapchat feed. The younger staffers, who are more familiar with the platform and the way its users communicate, post in-the-moment, behind the scenes snippets that fit the tone of the app.
Other news outlets have focused attention on one or another community or platform to ensure that their content connects with an audience there. Vox News, for example, employs both a Snapchat senior editor and a Snapchat producer. It’s important, news leaders stressed, to keep in mind that developing content for some platforms takes more resources than others, and to deploy those scarce resources wisely.
Participate in the exchange
Perhaps the simplest and most important thing a journalist can do to strengthen online conversation is just to show up.
A study of 2,500 political comments on 70 political posts by a local TV station showed that when a reporter jumped into a comment thread, uncivil comments declined by 15 percent (though, importantly, when the TV station’s own branded account jumped in, there was no effect). It’s difficult to say for sure why this happens, but many leading journalists offer the same explanation: People speak more thoughtfully when they know someone is listening.
“They’re so used to showing up on these pages and nobody’s paying any attention,” said Connie Schultz, a syndicated Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist who’s built an unusually engaged community of tens of thousands on Facebook.
When you show your public that you are listening to what they tell you, you encourage greater participation. But once you “show up” to a public exchange around your work, what do you do? We’re going to talk about three possibilities. Think of them as the beginner, intermediate and advanced ways to strengthen interaction by participating in public conversations:
Not all journalists have the time or inclination to talk deeply with the public. But there is one small step all journalists can take to support the public exchanges their work inspires. That is to respond to relevant questions. It takes little time, it is simple to do, and it does much to strengthen the quality of public interaction.
When you respond to valid reader questions publicly, you help clear up misunderstandings others in your audience might have. You also send the message that you care about how well your audience understands what you’re sharing with them.
In a set of internal guidelines from 2015, Chalkbeat suggested that its staff “should always try to respond to questions that readers ask in the comments section” of their stories.
Below is an example from Chalkbeat’s Tennessee bureau. Note the word of praise at the end of reporter Jackie Zubrzycki’s response to the reader’s question about something a district development specialist had said:
Even when they don’t pose direct questions, comments can show you what readers remain curious about and where you can provide more information. Chalkbeat New York reporter Geoff Decker updated his story after reading one such comment:
How do you know what questions constitute serious readers questions, and are therefore worth a response? Telling the difference can be tough. Some valid reader questions are communicated with a sense of anger or urgency. Other times, reader questions seem meant to express cynicism or to provoke a personal response rather than to engage honestly in debate or discussion. These questions can distract from a good conversation. Responding to them may further that distraction.
To ward off toxic comments and unproductive conversation (more on that later), it can be helpful to be the first to speak. Investigative reporters at The Desert Sun in Palm Springs, California, have at times left the first comment on the newspaper’s Facebook posts about their stories — just a quick hello to let others know they’re there. This encourages good discussion, Gannett social media leaders say, by providing readers with a human face with whom to interact.
Another step journalists can take to strengthen public interactions around their work is to highlight strong contributions as models for others to follow.
There are several ways journalists can elevate strong contributions in whatever spaces people are talking. The key is to do it visibly, so the contributor feels appreciated and others can see and model the behavior.
With a minimal time commitment, you can:
- Thank: Thank contributors for their productive comments. This is as easy as a reply to a comment on a forum (“Thank you for your thoughtful response”) or an upvote on a forum that includes that feature. Even a “like” on Facebook communicates some gratitude
- Elevate: Place a strong comment somewhere prominent in your story or website, to both reward the contributor and give others a model to follow. You might consider updating the story to include the comment as a way of encouraging others to join the conversation through a specific angle.
- Share: Re-distribute the model comment in the channels where you hope to reach more contributors. If the comment is a tweet on Twitter, for example, you could simply retweet it to your followers, ideally with your own comment explaining its value to the story or project. If you’re blogging, you might create a whole post or section of a post to feature and reflect on the comment.
To highlight its readers’ contributions, The New York Times recently launched a “Best Comments of the Week” feature in which it rounds up the most insightful reader reflections from across its channels and notes their popularity. “His comment received more than 900 reader recommendations and attracted over 100 replies,” Times community staffers wrote about a comment by “Glenn in Los Angeles.”
As with any social gesture, the more effort you put into your interaction with your public, the more significance your words will have. With a little more investment in time, you can encourage strong contributions from the community you engage in a familiar but powerful way — by asking questions.
Journalists don’t always think of people who speak out on forums or on social media as sources, but that is precisely what each of them can be. If someone expresses something interesting and therefore shows a willingness to engage with a topic, respond to her publicly and ask her to elaborate. Essentially: interview the people who are showing you they want to talk.
A woman named Katherine Johnson mentioned on Connie Schultz’s Facebook thread that her 88-year-old aunt, Lois Mickey Nash, was going to march in protest of a decision to absolve a white Cleveland police officer in the shooting deaths of two unarmed civilians who were black. Schultz asked Johnson for more information, interviewed Nash for two hours in her living room, and made her the subject of one of her columns.
It is natural for journalists to feel anxious about the mean, angry or otherwise disruptive public contributions they may receive. By encouraging good contributions — either by highlighting or engaging with them — journalists also discourage bad ones. This cold shoulder approach does not deliver results as immediately as banning users and deleting comments, news leaders admitted. But the more you and your well meaning contributors can turn toward each other, the less disruptive those angry voices become.
A powerful way journalists can strengthen the quality of public interaction is by adopting the role of a full-fledged moderator. This means doing what we discussed above — and more — to make the conversations you spark around your work as valuable to their participants as possible.
Moderating conversations around your work is a big commitment that can bring big rewards. The more people get out of the conversations you spark, the more they’ll want to come back, deepen their participation, and cultivate their connections with you and each other. The result is a slow but steady accumulation of trust, loyalty and mutual support. Over time, the contributors you gather become a community that cares about your work, largely because you’ve shown them it’s their work, too.
One of the most beneficial things journalists earn from a community, as opposed to an occasionally engaged audience, is the privilege of getting strong contributions even when we don’t ask for them.
The more people get out of the conversations you spark, the more they’ll want to come back, deepen their participation, and cultivate their connections with you and each other.
“The good thing about building a community is that people will let you know what’s going on,” Connie Schultz said. “You’re building a real source book. Long ago I lost count of how many times that’s helped give me an idea of something to write about.”
I have argued before that at a time when anyone can participate in newsgathering, cultivating strong self-informing communities around key interests or values is itself an act of journalism. 1 Some hold that much of this work should be delegated to newsroom staff skilled in community engagement and moderation. Others argue that some aspects of community building should be a new bullet point in the job descriptions of all journalists.
There’s one rule of thumb regarding engagement about which leading journalists seem to agree: Journalists should engage in conversations with the public only to the extent that we are able to manage what we spark. Engagement efforts work best when they show that we value contributors and their contributions. If we spark an important conversation, it says a lot if we strive to make it great.
Schultz spends hours keeping her conversations on Facebook civil and productive. The loyalty of her community easily translates into high readership for her stories. Stephanie Schwartz, audience development editor at National Memo, said that when Schultz shares her syndicated columns published on nationalmemo.com with her Facebook community, traffic to the site picks up significantly.
Online, an otherwise interesting discussion can easily devolve into a pointless war of words. Beyond encouraging civility in the ways we discussed above, there are at least three other things you can do to help keep conversations productive, journalists who moderate discussions said.
One is to enforce a civil tone. The second is to model it. And the third is to provide a gateway: give your community easy ways to practice being civil, so they’re more likely to do it even when it’s hard.
Let’s look first at influencing tone through policing or enforcement. This means deleting comments or banning users who inappropriately distract or otherwise disrupt the conversation. Some journalists are able to do this on their websites’ comment threads. Others depend on their colleagues to take these steps for them. Many newsrooms rely on technical features in their comments sections to help keep the peace, such as a flagging system, upvotes and downvotes, and threaded conversations. All journalists are able to control who speaks and who doesn’t on the conversational spaces they own, such as their Facebook pages.
But people also told me that unjustified enforcement can invite a community’s anger and erode trust. For that reason, if you enforce certain standards in the conversations you host, you should set out specific policies that will guide your decisions, remind people of them on a regular basis, and stay consistent in how you enforce them.
A more enduring way to cultivate a desired tone is to set it by example, modeling the voice and approach you want others to use.
Strong contributions to public conversations tend to share certain characteristics. They stay on-topic. They build off each other. They don’t get personal. And they’re generous, adding real value to the group by contributing new perspectives or new knowledge.
An obvious place to set a civil tone is at the start of a conversation, when you pose a question or broach a topic. A more powerful place to do it, however, is in the conversation itself, where you can model the best ways to respond to and build off people’s contributions.
Conversations with engaged journalists yielded some concrete tips on how best to build off contributions in a public discussion.
First, identify a contribution that strikes you as valuable to the discussion. Then, compose a reply to it that uses it as a launching pad to advance the group’s thinking in a good direction. Reflect on the comment’s significance to the larger story or topic. Call out any new angles or questions the contribution opens up. Where possible, address these new angles or questions: add whatever extra knowledge you bring as a journalist.
In doing this you accomplish several things at once: You flag the comment as particularly valuable. You add to the group’s store of knowledge. Most importantly, you encourage contributors to express their own curiosity and to help each other out.
For a strong example of how even beat reporters can model strong interaction, see this comment thread from The West Seattle Blog, a neighborhood news organization in Seattle. Editor Tracy Record, who replies in the thread as “WSB,” responds 14 times, reflecting on readers’ observations and adding her perspective to build the group’s understanding of a developing crime story.
Journalists who cover the news might find it silly or counterproductive to ever talk with the public about anything other than the news. But when you aim to build community by moderating strong discussions in spaces where you and the public interact freely, it can make sense to pepper heavy topics with lighter ones that bring people together.
Connie Schultz deals with many contentious issues in her reporting and on her Facebook page. She manages to moderate productive conversations with her diverse Facebook community over topics like race, same-sex marriage and criminal justice. She encourages her community to stick with tough debates, as she did when an April 2016 column criticizing the chief of the Cleveland Police Union stirred up tensions on Facebook:
In between these serious discussions, though, Schultz invites people to join her in occasional light-hearted reflections. In one popular post, she invited people to simply share what was on their minds. In another, Schultz reflected on a photo of her dog, Franklin, when he was young, and invited her community to post their own pet pictures.
The purpose of these posts is not to distract contributors from serious issues, Schultz implied, but to help them build the camaraderie it takes to tackle those issues productively. These prompts get people to be friendly with each other, regardless of their views, and make it easy for everyone to contribute. In effect, mixing easy conversations with tough ones gets people to practice both being civil and contributing to discussions you convene. Those are handy habits for your community to have when you present them with more challenging topics.
“You’re trying to close the distance between you and your readers,” Schultz said. “How do you remind people that we have more in common than people think, regardless of our worldviews?”
Getting personal and responding to criticism
To many journalists, public engagement seems risky if they work to project neutrality on their beat. They can rest assured: Sharing your personal views, perspectives or experience is by no means a requirement for strong engagement.
Many engaged journalists strike a balance that is comfortable for them, sharing just enough of themselves with the public to ground a good conversation, but not so much that they alienate people, compromise their ability to report their beats or invite unwanted attention.
Engaging more frequently with the public exposes journalists to more criticism — some of it fair, some of it vicious. Telling the difference between what to take to heart and what to push away is never easy, engaged journalists told me, though the distinctions get crisper with time and practice.
When responding to fair public criticism, it helps to keep in mind that your goal in interacting with the public is always to advance people’s understanding — including your own.
When responding to fair public criticism, it helps to keep in mind that your goal in interacting with the public is always to advance people’s understanding — including your own. If the person who has publicly criticized you has a point, even a small one, it’s good to say so, and be grateful for the help.
Most angry, personal posts are best deleted or ignored. But the emotional and psychological toll that persistently toxic conversations can take on journalists and vulnerable story subjects should factor heavily into newsroom decisions about how to manage this work.
Some newsrooms do not allow comments on stories about charged topics. Others, like Re/code, Reuters, The Daily Beast and The Toronto Star have shut down comments on all their stories, preferring to engage readers on social media. Whatever the strategy, managers would do well to take on moderation work wisely, assign it responsibly, and ensure that staff have the support they need.
Joining existing conversations
As journalists we may find ourselves wanting to engage with people in trusted community spaces with which we are not familiar, such as on Reddit, a close-knit Facebook group or some other online forum. We may want to ask something of the people in these spaces, share something with them, or learn — often in a rush — how to get something done with their help
When you arrive as a visitor in someone else’s community hub, it is natural to be a little unsure of how to act. Online communities, like communities everywhere, might have developed their own customs, norms and even language. Just as journalists would want members of the public to learn and respect certain rules when they engage in conversations we manage, journalists should do what we can to learn and honor the customs of the communities we want to engage.
The first thing you want to do when you speak to a new group of people, those active in engagement say, is to listen. Scan the threads. Read a few posts. Get a sense for what kind of exchange the community values, and how they approach each other for ideas or requests. Then speak.
In its ethics handbook, NPR stresses the importance of behaving appropriately in someone else’s space:
“… all NPR journalists understand that to get the most out of social media we need to understand those communities. So we respect their cultures and treat those we encounter online with the same courtesy and understanding as anyone we deal with in the offline world. We do not impose ourselves on such sites. We are guests and behave as such.”
Step 4: Honor community work
When people contribute ideas or material to your work, they are in essence co-creators. As such, they have more incentive than others to look at the story or project, improve upon it and share it.
One of the easier and more powerful ways to give your project an early boost is to let contributors know it’s published and thank them publicly for their role in shaping it. This acknowledgment begins to establish a relationship between yourself and the communities you engage, paving the way for richer future collaboration.
Fail to acknowledge the people who took the time to help you, and you send a very different message. You qualify the engagement as a one-off transaction with little enduring value. The next time you want to engage the community, you’ll have to spend more effort to make it fruitful, rather than less.
The civic tech organization Code for America refers to these essential acknowledgments as feedback loops. Without feedback loops, each engagement effort stands alone, rather than helping build toward the next one.
“Feedback is how the public knows and trusts their input is making meaningful change in their community,” the organization states in its best practices for community engagement. “If citizens can’t see that their investment of time resulted in a clear outcome they won’t be incentivized to participate again.”
To build cumulative connections with the people who contributed to your work, news leaders agree, you need to show them that their involvement was valuable, and that there is more that you all can come together to do.
The degree to which you should acknowledge an individual contribution, conversations with news leaders suggest, depends on how much that contribution influenced your project and how much effort the contributor took to make it happen.
If you quote directly from a person’s contribution, acknowledge the contributor by name, as you would with any other quoted or important source. When applicable, include the link to the material the person contributed. If a discussion by a crowd of people inspired your project in a broad way — even if it didn’t introduce specific material — a general thank you to the group is enough to make its members feel appreciated.
If a handful of people or fewer went out of their way to help you, a general thank you falls short. A specific acknowledgment of that person’s contribution will be necessary to honor the effort.
The degree to which you should acknowledge an individual contribution, conversations with news leaders suggest, depends on how much that contribution influenced your project.
We’ll turn to public radio for an example. In December 2013, NPR’s Planet Money reported a series on the afterlife of American clothes. While journalists browsed donated American clothes that ended up in African markets, they came across one t-shirt that bore the label “Jennifer’s bat mitzvah” on the front, along with the date of the event and the name of the owner on the tag — “Rachel Williams.”
For a unique angle on their series, Planet Money asked its readers to help track down Rachel and Jennifer. When one reader found the women through considerable effort, NPR’s follow-up story not only acknowledged him by the name, but also made his social media sleuthing part of their tale:
“Adam Soclof of JTA, a Jewish news service, saw a post about our search and set out to find Rachel Williams. He used Facebook Graph Search to look for people named Rachel Williams who had a friend named Jennifer, who would have been about 13 in 1993, and with whom he shared common Facebook friends,” the story read.
Planet Money also linked to the contributor’s blog post about finding the women, which included his own interviews with both. This essentially made Soclof’s story part of Planet Money’s own.
Planet Money’s decision to involve its audience in its storytelling paid off. The story it produced about solving the mystery was the most popular story in the Web series by far, according to Melody Kramer, who was a digital strategist at NPR at the time.
“Involving the audience in the process was key to bigger reach and a bigger [public] investment in the outcome,” Kramer said.
Letting people know when stories they contributed to are published is not just good marketing. It’s good manners, and a key way to affirm to contributors that what you built you built together.
Again, the specificity with which you notify contributors depends on their impact and level of effort. If people in a certain community discussed your project in a way that suggests they’d be interested in seeing it, leave a post in that community or in a thread discussing the project letting members know it’s up. If some people contributed in significant ways, notifying them directly, via email or a simple tag on social media, honors the effort, and gives you the opportunity to thank them in the same note.
It’s difficult to over-thank contributors. What you and your work stand to gain from a closer collaboration with communities is significant, and their obligation to work with you is nil. As news leaders stress, showing you value contributors is a key step toward building connections with them that can strengthen your work.
“All those people out there have so much more knowledge than you do,” said Jennifer Brandel of Hearken. ”If you want access to tapping into that, you need to treat it as a privilege rather than something on your to-do list.”
Invite further participation
Even when you’ve shown your community what you’ve done with their help, there’s more work you can come together to do.
In a 2013 speech, former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger outlined 10 principles of what he terms “open journalism.” Among them were that open journalism “encourages public participation,” is “open to challenge, correction and clarification,” and that “publishing is the start, not the end, of the process.”
So once your story is up, what’s next? How can people continue to contribute?
John Cook, co-founder of technology news site GeekWire, discovered the power behind these questions while he was a venture beat reporter at the now-shuttered Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
Cook was reporting about layoffs in the years after the dot-com bubble burst. He’d get repeated calls from people in the industry wanting to know about the situation at one or another company, and got an idea. He was friends with the paper’s only developer, and recruited him to help build an ongoing public database on his venture capital blog of local companies’ layoffs.
They called it the layoff tracker, and it became one of the more popular things on the blog. Cook soon realized its biggest benefit was not that it kept him from having to repeatedly answer questions. People started calling and emailing him to tell him which layoffs he was missing. People found the work so valuable, they couldn’t help but make it better when they could.
Today, GeekWire, the news site Cook cofounded with fellow former Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporter Todd Bishop, maintains several evergreen lists and directories. Entries in the lists, such as those in their tracker of Seattle engineering centers, often link to their own coverage of the companies.
Sometimes, people don’t contribute to your effort because they don’t know how.
You may hear frustration or criticism. Or you may see people contribute in ways they think best but you know to be ineffective. The trick is to listen carefully to these communications so that you recognize them as opportunities to educate people on how they can help you help them.
When people call The West Seattle Blog to complain that the neighborhood site missed a good story, editor Tracy Record tells them how they can call in a tip the next time, making sure to use a generous rather than frustrated tone. When people contact the site with a tip the staff does not have the bandwidth to pursue, Record suggests that they post the item on the site’s forum, or that they take some other action. “At least give them a direction,” Record said.
Even when people already know they can use West Seattle Blog’s features a certain way, Record said, hearing encouragement from the site editors that they should cultivates more frequent communication.
Record’s advice to neighbors extends beyond the services of West Seattle Blog. At one civic event that was not well attended, Record spoke with a woman who doubted her presence would make a difference. Record insisted that it would, justifying her observation with personal experience.
Record takes the time to help locals become better contributors to their community, not just to her site, she said, out of “enlightened self-interest”: The more people there are in West Seattle who are invested in the goings-on of the community, the more likely they’ll be to want to read and contribute to the West Seattle Blog.
Step 5: Track and learn
When it comes to building relationships with people and communities, practitioners told me much of what counts can’t be counted. A key skill to understanding your audience is the unquantifiable personal touch.
News leaders agree, however, that tracking the impact of your engagement efforts is a big step toward improving them. The trick is to select meaningful metrics that track your specific goals, and to make informed decisions about how you’ll interpret them. Fail to be proactive in deciding what metrics matter, and your staff may default to overvaluing broad metrics like social follower counts and page views while undervaluing incremental progress in building community support.
More fundamentally, monitoring the outcomes of what you do, as specifically as you can, gives you the ability to put each of your engagement projects to the test, and learn from the results.
Choose your metrics
It’s tempting to want to measure the success of your engagement by the metrics that are most accessible or most familiar. Page views. Time on site. Facebook followers.
The key to choosing metrics, news leaders say, is to make sure they tell you what you need to know. Before you pick what measures you want to track, then, it’s important to know what your goals are.
Benjamin Herold, Rachael Delgado and Mike Castellano of Education Week identified specific ways they wanted to help Herold improve his blog’s relevance to its audience. He wanted to boost his blog’s reach, its “findability” on the Web, and its ability to draw people into the sales funnel of the Education Week website, on which people can register to access some features, then pay to gain full access to content.
“What our mission is, what the organization’s values are, the paywall, the business model, that all factored in,” Herold said.
Once they had identified these goals, the Education Week team selected seven quantifiable indicators it wanted to track, such as mobile page views, Twitter visits and site registrations per 1,000 unique visitors. The team then developed strategies Herold could pursue to move those metrics in the right direction. In this way, it ensured that each metric tested a concrete action, and helped the team decide how well it was working.
“It’s like we were running these mini-studies,” Herold said.
Some behaviors can only be measured qualitatively. Others are only trackable if you take steps to make them so. When Columbia Missourian reporters passed out paper fliers at the Hickman High School football game encouraging attendees to read their coverage of the mascot’s 100th anniversary online, they included a shortened link from bit.ly, the URL shortening and tracking service. Thanks to that, reporters were able to see that more than half the people to whom they gave fliers ended up visiting the site.
Once you’ve decided what metrics best track what you’d like to accomplish, the next step is to interpret them.
Herold collected six months of data and took away several lessons from his attempt to understand his Education Week blog’s audience. He included photos in more than 60 percent of his posts, when previously he’d added them to only 17 percent. He placed keywords more prominently in his headlines. He also clustered his content, taking posts that were doing well as cues to blog more around those topics, and presenting those stories together and linking them.
Then he used his metrics to measure the effect of the changes. Page views went up 67 percent, and 102 percent on mobile. Site registrations jumped 89 percent.
“I’ve come to believe the accumulation of those little things makes a big difference,” Herold said.
Much also can be learned from observing community behavior, even when you can’t count it. The key is to remain observant and to develop a process for translating observations into potential actions.
Editors and reporters working on The Seattle Times’ Education Lab fill out impact reports when they see ways in which their stories have a discernible impact on public discussion. On those reports, staffers note whether stories resulted in such community responses as notable online comments, calls or emails from readers, changes in policy or mentions of the story by education advocacy organizations or the school districts. The data go into a database that the project’s engagement editor consults to draw up monthly impact reports for the team to learn from. The data are also analyzed in other ways.
Sometimes, tracking engagement impact leads you to abandon an effort. Chalkbeat used to host open-ended chats at local libraries it called Chalkbeat Conversations, inviting members of the public to join the staff and chat about the issues. Few people showed up, leading editors there to conclude that the event wasn’t working, and they should focus on other events to gather the community.
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