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How to become a newsroom that consistently engages audiences

Not many newsrooms are designed with engaging audiences in mind. Many newsroom leaders find it more natural to approach tools of engagement as tools for marketing and promotion. And many staffers hear more loudly that they should use social media to work on their brands rather than to work on their relationships with sources, subjects and communities.

Marketing your stories and yourself is a big part of what engagement can accomplish. But when you engage audiences, you pursue other goals. You work to build loyalty with your audience and surrounding communities by interacting with them in ways that prove you matter and help secure your future. And you do it over the long run, not just for any one story.

“There are more individuals who are good at it than organizations,” said Andy Carvin, editor of the social media-based news organization Reported.ly and former social media reporter at NPR.

You work to build loyalty with your audience and surrounding communities by interacting with them in ways that prove you matter and help secure your future.

“Too many times I’ve seen where you see a particular news site or blog that really excels at it, then when one person moves around, they’re not doing it anymore, and you realize it was all through the sheer force of will of that one person.”

At NPR, Carvin became known for his innovative coverage of the revolts of the Arab Spring. He listened as people from those countries shared information on Twitter, and curated with them a stream of the most valuable real-time witness reports and perspectives. As he got to know key sources, they led him to others, and before long the relationships he’d built had made his Twitter stream one of the most critical sources of news from the region.

NPR supported and celebrated Carvin’s work, but was not well equipped to embrace it, Carvin said. Publishers are still discovering how to build their capacity for engagement in the newsroom. Conversations with Carvin and others suggest several strategies.

Empower those ready to engage

Successful engagement strategies are often sparked by one or two people who are eager to try them. When you identify and empower staff who are already inclined toward engagement, news leaders say, you can begin to build your capacity for productive audience interaction.

Who are these journalists? Managers have observed that they often share certain qualities. A tendency toward transparency. A certain level of openness. A mix of enthusiasm and restraint that both keeps up with the pace real-time conversation and knows not to get reckless with the facts. Most of all, they display a comfort with online interaction, and a good nose for seeking out communities of interest when they want to learn about a certain issue.

When Andy Carvin hired his team of social media-embedded journalists at Reported.ly, he looked for people who showed they already valued what a participatory public had to offer. He also looked for humility.

“What kind of empathy do they have? Not only in the type of reporting they do, but in how they feel they should relate to the public,” Carvin said. “There’s a certain kind of personality that comes with that. They’re not only going to ask questions of their sources and things… They want to have conversations with the public.”

One way to identify these people in your newsroom, Carvin said, is to take note of who is already spending time in online communities. Of course, there’s a fine line between engaging productively in online spaces and allowing them to become distractions. Still, establishing a presence, when done strategically, is a key part of getting to know a community.

Take note of who is already spending time in online communities.

“Spending time online and interacting with people isn’t that different from a beat reporter hanging out at the local bar and buying a cop a drink,” Carvin said.

Some newsrooms have already formalized the search for and empowerment of journalists inclined toward engagement. Gannett is a notable example. As the result of a 2014 restructuring initiative it called “Picasso,” it created newly defined newsroom positions and required that all newsroom employees fit into one of them.

Here’s part of the job description for the Engagement Editor position at Gannett’s Pensacola News Journal:

“Plans and executes engagement opportunities to maximize community impact and story resonance in print, digital, community event and social media settings. Oversees content that highlights discussions and debates on important community issues. Should possess expertise in social media, marketing and events planning. Connects content with creative ways to generate community interaction both virtually and through events. May directly supervise the work of producers.”

Gannett’s Picasso initiative was met with skepticism from some for its company-wide application. But it reflected Gannett’s belief that redefined newsrooms, with redefined job titles, might be just what newsrooms need to meet the needs of a participatory public.

“The engagement loop is better when we make good adjustments and always let readers know how we’ve changed to serve their needs better,” said Jodi Gersh, director of social and strategic brand marketing at USA TODAY. “Engagement is the thing we feel will make a difference for us.”

Staff for engagement

Even reporters who love interacting with people online can’t do it all. Many newsrooms have begun to hire staffers to take on some of the heavier tasks in long-term engagement strategies, such as project design, events coordination, and partnership development.

Gannett offers one example of a company that has mandated that these jobs exist at least to some extent in all its newspapers. At Gannett’s Fort Collins Colorodoan, managers have taken the initiative one step further. A 10-member engagement team guides the paper’s capacity for productive audience interaction.

The Coloradoan engagement team consists of an engagement editor who works with reporters to build out individual engagement strategies and oversees social media; a planning editor who makes sure content reaches relevant communities, works well across platforms and represents a mix of deep pieces, investigations and quick takes; a reporter who covers local culture, entertainment and trends; a reporter who curates social media conversation and video; three digital producers and two photographers. Another staffer, Alexandra Smith, leads the team.

“There’s no story that goes online or into print without being looked at through that engagement lens,” Smith said. For her, that means both making sure newsroom content is optimized to reach its intended audience and integrating interactive components that can strengthen the stories, such as a poll, a request for public perspectives, a real-world event or a live Facebook chat with the reporter.

There’s no story that goes online or into print without being looked at through that engagement lens.

The paper tasked 10 people with “empowering the newsroom to help the community,” Smith said, because its leadership recognized that there was a gap between the value the newspaper thought it was providing and the value that was actually coming through to the community.

“We wholeheartedly believe the future of local news rests on us doing something different to engage with the people who live here,” Smith said. “I don’t know that local news reporting is enough, because people haven’t seen the value recently. How can we show them that this is valuable and worth something?”

Assembling a team of engagement-focused staffers is not feasible for many publishers. The advantage comes from having at least one person who can think broadly about engagement strategies for the whole organization, rather than just for themselves or their beat.

The Seattle Times hired its first-ever community engagement editor as it assembled a team to support its Education Lab project. Three years into the project, director of journalism initiatives Sharon Chan insists that separate role was a critical step to making the project succeed.

“You can’t expect a reporter to take it all on. Also, the reporter is also looking for leadership, and training, someone to bounce story ideas off of,” Chan said.

Chan cautioned, however, that visible support from leadership goes a long way to showing a community that you take seriously your efforts to listen to and engage them. When the Times set out on its listening tour before the Education Lab project launched, the assistant managing editor and editorial page editor joined the project editors and reporters on some stops. That signaled to the people they consulted that the Times was committed to the project, and to hearing them out.

Share tools and success stories

Another way publishers can build their capacity for engagement is to develop tools and processes that help support it.

At NPR, engagement editors recognized that images were shared more widely on social media than posts with just text. Adding an image to a tweet produced 35 percent more retweets, a study from Twitter showed. NPR’s digital strategy team wanted the boost, but faced a challenge. How could they help reporters make radio stories visual?

In 2014, then-NPR digital strategist Melody Kramer helped create the “Quotable” tool to address the issue. The tool allowed any NPR reporter to turn a quote from their story into a well designed image bearing that quote and the NPR logo:

engagement tedx

The tool drew more people to NPR stories and was a hit among staff, but Kramer’s work was not done. Over time, she and other NPR strategists tested different ways to use the tool and shared their lessons with NPR staff. For example, they learned that posting these “quotables” on Facebook more than three times a week had an adverse effect on sharing, and that shorter posts traveled much farther than longer ones.

Giving staff space to share their engagement success stories is a strong way to spread the use of effective tools and methods.

At NPR, staff share their experiences on a blog called Social Media Desk, which allows NPR reporters — not just digital strategists — to share their victories. This is important because reporters and digital staffers can feel they are in conflict if they believe they serve different underlying values. In reality, all journalists pursue the same goal — to ensure their material connects with the community.

“I was happiest when people at NPR wrote up their own thing and it wasn’t me writing about them,” Kramer said. “I’d say, ‘That looked like it was really successful, why don’t you write it up?’ People were more likely to listen to them than to me.”

Pace yourself

No one can build connections with audiences and communities overnight. The same can be said for any effort to improve your work by tuning in to community behaviors and needs.

Reporters and editors need to understand why certain strategies work, not just what they are. For that reason, news leaders suggest, you can often build your newsroom’s capacity for audience collaboration more powerfully with step by step methods than quick mandates.

Reporters and editors need to understand why certain strategies work, not just what they are.

After Education Week reporter Benjamin Herold and his colleagues Rachael Delgado and Mike Castellano doubled his blog’s readership by being more tuned in to his audience, they wanted to share their strategies with other Education Week reporters. The team knew, however, that simply telling other reporters about their strategies would not be enough to replicate the results Herold saw on his blog. They believed that pacing the work and making space to talk about and learn from their results was critical to the success they saw.

“One key learning from all this for me was, this is really high-touch work. It’s not a memo, it’s not a list of things to do,” said Delgado, director of knowledge services for Education Week. “If you’re looking to build engagement and reach, that’s not something you can do in a day and say in a week, ‘It works.’”

The Education Week team presented its results to newsroom leaders. In the summer of 2015, they invited two additional Education Week reporters to go through a process similar to Herold’s. Over the course of three months, Delgado and Castellano met weekly with each of the two reporters, guiding them through new strategies they applied to their work and tracking the results using a similar set of indicators.

Once again, the process produced results. The two Education Week reporters’ blogs saw combined increases of 77 percent in page views and an increase of 27 percent in registrations on edweek.org.

Build with communities

No newsroom has an abundance of time. But thanks to the participatory public, all newsrooms have abundant access to their audiences. The ability to develop new ideas with the people who will ultimately benefit from them is changing the ways newsrooms innovate. When a newsroom can support and protect that process, a lot can be learned.

Sharing an unfinished product with anyone outside the newsroom will seem risky. You expose your process, open it up to public debate and put yourself in a position where you will have to publicly defend your choices. But allowing an audience in early can help you develop in the right directions sooner. In certain situations, it makes sense.

When BuzzFeed hired Millie Tran (disclosure: she is a former API employee) to head up the team that would develop BuzzFeed’s primary email newsletter, managers gave her few instructions and a lot of freedom to experiment publicly.

At first, an early version of the newsletter went out to 30 people in BuzzFeed’s own newsroom, including top managers Ben Smith and Shani Hilton. A week later, it went to 60 people there. Tran and her team also shared ideas for the newsletter with people on Facebook, asking for feedback.

All newsrooms have abundant access to their audiences.

“The process of having an audience really helps, so you’re not working in a bubble,” Tran said.

The public feedback helped the team home in on its own objectives and find better ways to meet them. At one point, readers on Facebook let them know that a map in the newsletter was missing information critical to understanding the map. The BuzzFeed team had known that they wanted the newsletter to deliver a strong reading experience all on its own. Thanks to the feedback, they realized they needed to think more broadly about where the reader experience can slip.

By the fall of 2015, BuzzFeed’s newsletter served 60,000 subscribers and claimed a 30 percent open rate. Two Facebook groups of 500 beta users for products like the newsletter and, primarily, BuzzFeed’s mobile BF News app, help Tran and her team extend their reach.

“I’m not concerned about forcing this product into someone’s life. How do I make it fit into someone’s life? That’s a critical question we forget to ask sometimes,” Tran said.

Special thanks to everyone who contributed their insights to this report: Laura Amico, Anika Anand, Jake Batsell, Kathy Best, Jennifer Brandel, Andy Carvin, Sharon Chan, John Cook, Rachael Delgado, Jodi Gersh, Andrew Haeg, Benjamin Herold, Shani Hilton, Melody Kramer, Joy Mayer, Michael Owen, Tracy Record, Patrick Sand, Connie Schultz, Stephanie Schwartz, Alexandra Smith, Josh Stearns, Mandy Thomas, Millie Tran, and Amanda Zamora.

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