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What exactly is engagement and what difference does it make?

Though “engagement” is a word journalists hear a lot these days, its function can be tough to articulate. For many, the goal of engagement seems to be largely marketing, chiefly on social media. How many shares can your story get? How many followers do you have on Twitter?

For others, engagement is about making your reporting easier, by getting your audience to send you useful material.

Journalists who have built the most valuable connections to their communities say that engaging people in their journalism aims to achieve something more fundamental than either promotion or crowdsourcing. It’s making sure your work matters to your audience. And to the publishers who oversee journalists’ work, engagement helps ensure that work finds the public support it needs to endure.

One strong example of this kind of engagement is The Seattle Times’ Education Lab project, which covers public education issues in conversation with the locals who most care about it. Before the project launched, staff organized a seven-stop “listening tour” with parents, students, teachers and community leaders whom they had identified as influencers in the education space. Education reporters and editors, a newly hired community engagement editor, and even the paper’s assistant managing editor attended.

[Engagement is] making sure your work matters to your audience.

“We got story ideas, but the most important thing that came out of that was confidence building — the confidence that what we were creating would be of value to the community,” said Sharon Chan, the paper’s director of journalism initiatives who helped design the engagement strategies for the project.

The Education Lab was scheduled to be a one-year project. It is now in its third year thanks in part to support from Seattle’s education community, Chan said. The education leaders whom Times staff engaged early on are among the project’s biggest advocates, passing on ideas and advocating to potential funders.

Had the education community not been involved, Chan said, that community “would put the onus on The Seattle Times Company to fund the sustainability of the project. They would be complaining to us, ‘You need to keep going,’ as opposed to the conversation being, ‘How can we help you find support?’”

When news publishers engage the public in their work, they open up avenues that can support it. Rather than merely consuming journalism, a member of the public can become a partner in sustaining it.

The real product is the relationship

Involving audiences in journalism changes what the news is in the first place. It’s not a product created by journalists and delivered to an audience. It’s an open, public conversation. Ideally, news in the digital world takes input from both journalists and the public to power what Tom Rosenstiel of the American Press Institute calls a “virtuous circle of learning.”

The Seattle Times engaged in that conversation with the education community throughout Education Lab. It asked questions on social media, published guest columns by community members, held live Q&As with reporters about their stories and hosted events and even workshops to deepen conversations and make it easier for people to act. Project staff twice invited influencers to provide feedback over lunch, and held a “roadshow” to talk about the impact of the coverage.

“The newspaper helped turn often angry rhetoric into constructive dialogue that parents, educators and community members craved,” noted judges for the Associated Press Media Editors Awards, which named The Seattle Times’ Education Lab one of two winners of its inaugural prize for community engagement.

Involving audiences in journalism changes what the news is.

As the Education Lab advanced, Times staff learned how it could organize its reporting to better involve the community. In the first year, they covered many different subjects within education as the subjects developed, like traditional beat reporters would. Editors then realized they could build more community investment and engagement around certain topics by reporting several stories about that topic over several months, each building on the last.

Staying with a topic gave Education Lab staff the opportunity to develop communities of interest, who could then suggest more stories. This proved particularly effective when the Times Education Lab took on the theme of school discipline. They organized two real-world events to take the conversation offline. They then created a Facebook group — “Discipline for all: A community conversation” — and invited event attendees to join. Reporters and editors engaged with the online group, keeping the conversation there fresh by adding links to relevant articles from around the Web.

When a member of the Facebook group shared that the Seattle School Board was going to consider a moratorium on school suspensions, the education editor saw it and assigned a reporter to the story. The June 25, 2015 story ran online that same day, and in the print edition the following day. It sparked a local conversation that grew and intensified. On Sept. 23, the board voted to halt school suspensions.

Meanwhile, traffic to the Education Lab blog grew. Over time, reporters noticed that their sources seemed to trust them more, and with that trust came better access, better stories and a more loyal audience. The stories, they realized, were building blocks for something else.

“The discrete product,” Chan said, “was the relationship.”

Tracking engagement ensures your work matters

Relationships are the most valuable products of strong community engagement, but any effort to involve, connect with, or even just understand your audiences has other rewards.

Benjamin Herold, a reporter at Education Week, had no idea how many people read his stories when he asked a colleague to help him design a way to learn from his audience. He had heard in scattered staff emails and industry articles that he should look at things like search engine optimization to make his content more findable to his audience. But he was busy enough writing stories.

“I realized at that point that I was dismissive of this stuff without taking it seriously,” he said. “I don’t like to be that way, so I said, let’s give this an honest effort, an honest shot. If nothing comes of it, I can feel warranted in my skepticism.”

Herold approached Education Week director of knowledge services Rachael Delgado for help. Working with web analyst Mike Castellano, the three chose seven indicators to track audience activity, such as page views and site registrations.

Then they developed 12 ways Herold could push that activity. Some of those tactics were simple, such as adding more images to his posts. Others got to the root of how he organized his work, such as spending less time producing “random, ‘We have to post something’ items” and more time producing and bundling stories about topics that most resonated with his audience.

Herold applied the tactics to his work from the fall of 2014 through the spring of 2015, meeting regularly with Delgado and Castellano to discuss his blog’s analytics and what he should do next. After six months of thoughtful tracking, Herold had doubled his blog’s readership, nearly doubled registrations to Education Week from the blog (a key part of the organization’s business model) and increased visits from the site’s core audience of school district administrators by 94 percent.

The experience changed how Herold felt about his work. Instead of moving from story to story with no public feedback, he found ways to check and boost his relevance, and, in the process, his company’s bottom line.

My relationship with my audience has changed from expecting readers to work to understand my reporting and publication habits to recognizing that I must regularly work to understand my readers’ interests and media-consumption behaviors.

“The nature of my job has fundamentally changed from producing good content to producing good content and helping the right people engage it,” he wrote on a slide in a deck he presented to a group of journalists at the 2015 IRE conference.

“My relationship with my audience has changed from expecting readers to work to understand my reporting and publication habits to recognizing that I must regularly work to understand my readers’ interests and media-consumption behaviors,” he wrote on another slide.

At its most powerful, engagement is not a layer to add on top of conventional journalistic practice, but a firmer foundation that links journalism more closely with the people it aims to serve.

In the process, engagement helps journalists answer a critical question about their future. As Kelsey Proud phrased that question in her report, The News is Served:

“How can we make sure we’re worth it?”

A note on “audience” and “community”

Conversations about engagement often use the terms “audience” and “community” interchangeably without being clear on what they’re talking about. This is in part because these terms are useful to this discussion but are helpful to distinguish. For this study’s purposes:

  • A news publisher’s audience is the group of people who consume that publisher’s content. We often refer to a news “audience” in the singular, but it’s more useful when shaping newsroom strategy to recognize that a single news publisher can serve many different “audiences” with different needs and interests. In any case, the audience or audiences are the people you reach.
  • A news community is a group of people who interact with each other around a shared interest or value. Most “communities” already exist independent of a news publisher. And just because your publication reaches or even engages a number of individuals in your audience doesn’t mean you’ve created a true “community.”

The idea of an audience as a group of people who merely consume a product provided for them is outdated in journalism, if not all media. You might as well strike it from your sense of who’s looking at your work.

The companies who already command much of the public’s attention view their audiences as creators as well as consumers of information.

“Twitter can’t just be the best window to the world; Twitter also has to be the most powerful microphone in the world,” Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter, described his company’s approach to its users in a 2015 earnings call.

“You should expect Twitter to increase your reach and you should expect Twitter to encourage live and direct conversation and participation around whatever you share.”

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