An effective journalist has always been on a first-name basis with the movers and shakers of a town. With the co ee shop owner, the lunch spot waitress, the city manager, the mailman, and both the official and self-appointed ‘mayors’ in the neighborhood.”
—Caitlyn May, Editor, Cottage Grove Sentinel (Oregon)
Engagement was arguably the media buzzword of 2016. But definitions of this term vary. Most interviewees for this project agreed that engagement was important, but they were still endeavoring to define what it meant, how to prioritize it, and where their focus should be.
“We’re still trying to figure that out,” admits Mark Zusman, editor and publisher of Willamette Week (Portland, Oregon). “I mean, clearly on one level, if you’re talking about your website, it means having an increasing number of readers who are spending an increasing amount of time. And that’s sort of the base level of engagement.”
Of course, as Zusman and others outline, engagement can go beyond measurable outputs such as subscribers, website visitors, time on site, number of social shares, and other metrics. It is a label that can also be used to describe the emerging “engaged journalism” movement, which at its core envisions a changed relationship between journalists and communities, with journalists actively engaging in conversation with their communities.
Although their motivations may be different, both approaches to engagement are rooted in creating a deeper relationship with audiences, and we are seeing an increasing level of discussion and activity designed to place engagement at the heart of what many news organizations do.
These discussions are happening in organizations large and small, across multiple media platforms. Their impact can be seen in changing content styles, digital experimentation, and growth in e orts focused on real-world engagement. This includes physical events and forums, as well as other attempts at more community-focused journalism.
Five Strategic Drivers for Engagement
As briefly discussed, although engagement is informing journalistic output, there is also an underlying economic imperative. Local news providers are exploring new ways to engage audiences in order to create community impact and help secure their financial future.
Here are some of the key drivers for engagement amongst news organizations in the Pacific Northwest and beyond:
- Double-down on relationships with existing audiencesIn particular, this includes looking to reduce fly-bys, developing brand loyalty in an increasingly media-brand-agnostic age, and seeking to maximize revenue from (more) faithful audiences.
- Data-driven audience insights can shape new creative possibilities, including content rationalization, formatting, and expansion into new areas.
For news organizations, including local newsrooms such as the Klamath Falls Herald and News (Oregon), programs like the American Press Institute’s “Metrics for News” program are helping “to create data-driven content strategies.”
This program can help local publishers determine the passions of their audiences, so they can use these insights to manage finite resources and focus their coverage accordingly. At a time when many newsrooms are shrinking, this can help managers determine where they should place their bets in beats, content framing, and prioritization of distribution platforms.
3. Create opportunities to unlock content and contributions from what NYU Professor Jay Rosen calls “the people formerly known as the audience.”
Sharon Chan, vice president of innovation, product and development for the Seattle Times (Washington) notes that “guest columns are really powerful, and we want to do more of them.”
However, she also reminds publishers that this approach is seldom a shortcut for securing great content. “Unfortunately, people always think we’re going to collect these great essays and just, like, publish them,” she says. “The reality is everyone needs editing. Especially people who don’t write for a living.”
4. Restore trust among disenfranchised news audiences.
Economics aside, journalism is also contending with a challenging political climate and a large constituency that distrusts the media.
Research from Gallup in late 2016 reported that trust in the media at a record low, particularly among Republicans and younger and older Americans.
5. Find opportunities to secure—and grow— sources of revenue
This backdrop of declining trust and increased political opposition creates further challenges for a sector that has already been dramatically affected by the digital disruption of the wider media ecosystem.
As Les Zaitz, editor and publisher of the Malheur Enterprise (Vale, Oregon) argues, one implication of this trend is that, unless trust is restored, it will be di cult for many media companies to be viable businesses.
“If the significant majority of Americans—what, 80 percent or more—don’t trust us, then there is no way in my judgment that you will ever answer the question of how do you build a sustainable economic model so you can serve communities until you confront that,” Zaitz says.
Although 2016 data from Pew indicates that local media is more trusted than other sources, a potential impact of weakened trust levels—across the media spectrum—could be reduced engagement with news media at all levels, in terms of consumption and purchasing of content.
Naturally, the reverse is also true, with some news providers seeing a “Trump bump.” However, the sustainability of this remains uncertain.
This is an extract from a new report on the evolution of local journalism in the Pacific Northwest, published by the Agora Journalism Center at the University of Oregon.