Traditional Measures of Engagement

“Engagement goes beyond mere metrics and financial viability, as it can also impact on wider journalistic practice.”

Issues of trust, and the role they play in supporting fundamental financial needs, are clearly key drivers for engagement. Yet engagement goes beyond mere metrics and financial viability, as it can also impact on wider journalistic practice.

For news organizations, this can mean a changing relationship between journalists and the audiences they serve. Increasingly, concepts of engagement impact the way stories are told and created as well.

Building on the experience of 10 outlets in the Pacific Northwest, the remainder of this chapter offers a smorgasbord of how news organizations in the region are making sense of “engagement” both online and offline. Few outlets are embracing all of these opportunities, but many are implementing some of them (often as resources allow) and considering the potential of others.

Measuring Impact (Reach and Circulation)

Many local news organizations still place considerable importance on traditional engagement mechanisms, such as comments, Letters to the Editor, subscriptions, and online page views.

Logan Molen, publisher/CEO RG Media Company and the Eugene Register- Guard (Oregon) noted, for example, the volume—and quality—of the letters his paper still receives from readers:

I tweeted out late last year—it was right before the election—I think we got like 260 letters to the editor. And I tweeted it out, and the vice president at GateHouse Newspaper said, ‘Holy cow. That’s impressive.’ And then I thought, OK, well it’s just the election, it’ll die down. Well, in February we had 200 and some odd letters in a week, and that’s a lot of engagement, and it’s … really thoughtful engagement on issues that are of local and national importance.

Molen sees engagement as something that “goes beyond just liking a story or reading a story.” He’s keen to inspire an emotional reaction—good or bad—in his readers.

If somebody picks up our paper, visits our website, res up the app, and then they’re done, and you haven’t triggered an emotional reaction in them … you’ve lost ‘em. You just wasted their time. Every single touchpoint we have [is] a battle that we got to win, even if it’s bad.

Accountability Post-Publication

For Jim Simon, the Seattle Times’ former managing editor, “There’s this other part of engaging with the community, which is building trust.” One clear way to do this, he suggests, is that “you need to be more transparent with communities about what we’re doing, which is sometimes no more than explaining what we do. I think that’s important.”

In a bid to be more answerable to his audience, the Eugene Register-Guard’s Logan Molen produces a semi-regular column called “Give and Take,” where “I’ll respond to their compliments or their concerns or their complaints. And so it gets posted online, and then I will engage with people with comment [there too].”

“I do that now because I think it’s important and fun,” he says, “but it’s sending a message that this is part of our job.”

This approach is part of a wider recognition that, whereas in a lot of journalism of the past, a journalist’s role often ceased when a story was written, that is no longer the case.

“For a long time, journalists had the luxury of just getting published and then running away and letting their stories go out into the wild and fend for themselves,” explains the Seattle Times’ Chan. “In old models of journalism, it was very much a one-way medium. Journalists gave their stories to the public.”

Creating a Feedback Loop Between Journalists and Audiences

This one-way relationship is beginning to change. Social media and online comments create spaces for post- publication feedback and discussion—environments many journalists inhabit and engage in.

Meanwhile, organizations like The Coral Project have created new tools to encourage listening and improved audience comments. News providers are adopting these
applications and opportunities for engagement, factoring them into journalist workflows.

“What we’ve been trying to create at the Seattle Times, starting with the education area, is a loop,” says Chan. She outlines how this works:

Journalists are talking to readers through the journalism, readers are talking to [each] other—that journalism is inspiring other conversation between readers— and readers are also connecting back to the journalists themselves. And that conversation is actually shaping the journalism that comes forward. So it’s a loop in which the readers and the journalists have an exchange, and they build on one another.

Through this, Chan argues, “your journalism can actually have a much broader and deeper impact.”

Other traditional engagement models that are being deployed across the region—including listener panels, focus groups, and community advisory boards—are all working toward similar goals: garnering feedback and input from voices outside of the newsroom, promoting transparency and accessibility, and making journalists more accountable to their audience. Their role and importance seems set to grow as engagement becomes increasingly important.

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. 

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