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How to engage your audience before, during and after reporting

How to engage your audience before, during and after reporting

Dena Levitz | April 23, 2015

Journalism has become a process, not a product and, as a result, news organizations have an exciting opportunity to check in with the community every step of the way.

Social media is no longer just a place to feature completed articles but to discover what the public cares about, to crowdsource information and to let readers follow along with and chime in on stories as they unfold.

This premise was one of the underlying themes that emerged out of a session on consumer engagement held at the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association’s American East Conference earlier this month.

The Hill’s Shannan Bowen, Josh Stearns of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation’s Journalism Sustainability Project and Billy Penn’s Chris Krewson were speakers during the session. I served as moderator for the panel, and invited the panel to offer their insights on engaging users. What struck me about the three was their expertise on audience engagement but also the diversity of their employers and approaches.

Billy Penn, less than a year old, is a mobile-first startup that’s experimenting with nontraditional content like emojis to cover issues of importance to young Philadelphians. The Hill is almost the opposite -- a news brand based out of Washington D.C. with a long history and a particular attention to political influencers. Yet the publication’s just launched a mobile website and is trying to become more innovative, especially in its use of social platforms. The Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation’s Journalism Sustainability Project is developing community-driven revenue strategies across a wide cross-section of outlets, so Josh’s perspective on community is an absolute bird’s-eye view.

At America East, each panelist gave their take on the ever-increasing role of the community and emphasized the need to make publications audience-centric. We had a question and answer period that flowed so freely we didn’t get to all the questions, so here's a continuation of the discussion between Shannan, Josh, Chris and I after the conference.

Me: For more of a legacy publication, what's your feeling about where engagement should fall in the organizational structure? Should there be a dedicated person? Are we past the point of needing a specific person assigned to social media?

Josh: I think there are many models depending on the newsroom, but in general I think having one person whose role it is to be point on community engagement is important (even if that is just part of their job) but you also need buy-in across the newsroom. Having someone always looking for engagement opportunities across the organization can help facilitate relationship-building between many different staff and the community. So I’d say, designate a leader but don’t silo it as something separate from the rest of the newsroom.

Chris: You need support from the top, as in your editor and leadership practicing what they preach, and support from the people closest to the news: editors, beat reporters, people on the desks, etc. It's helpful for there to be one dedicated person overseeing all of this, because when engagement is everyone's job, engagement is no one's job.

Shannan: News organizations used to think of social media as just a distribution method that would fall at the end of a reporting process. You would conduct interviews, write an article, then think about posting that article to social channels.

Now, journalists are using social media to find stories, connect to sources and engage audiences before content is even produced on a news organization's site. Engagement strategies developed by a leader should encourage journalists, editors, videographers and others in the newsroom to use social media in all areas of their jobs. Engagement leaders also should be comfortable working with business staff to align on the organization's goals and communicate results. For example, our publisher and marketing director at The Hill receives a report from me each week about how we've reached our target audience, including specifics about which influencers have engaged with our content and how. Engagement strategies are also an important part of revenue strategies.

Me: There's the growing notion of thinking about shareability while reporting and at the outset. What are your tips for doing this well?

Josh: I think it is important to think about how the news will live on beyond the reporting, how people will put it to use in their own lives. People will share things that resonate with them emotionally, that surprise them or that they find useful (and believe others will too). I also think people will share when prompted to. Things like Medium’s highlights or those sites that have highlighted very tweetable lines in a story can serve dual purposes, helping encourage sharing and comprehension by emphasizing key points.

Chris: Keep in touch with your sources after you publish. Let them know where to find the story. Find active pages on Facebook; quote discussions there, use them to find sources. Then post your story there. Don't just think of social and sharing as a post-publication exercise. It should inform your reporting.

Shannan: Don’t let the questions and conversations stop with your interviews. Use social media to have continuous conversations with your community, even if a story doesn’t yet exist. When I covered county government and beach towns in Wilmington, N.C., I had a separate Facebook account to connect with my audience (this was before journalists could use pages). I often would use that account as a platform to talk about what I was covering that week or what I was noticing around town. I’d post updates on actions taken in meetings, things I’d usually live-tweet. Sometimes I’d post lovely pictures of the beach (I was covering the beach towns, after all). Once I built a community around my page, I would regularly receive messages, wall posts and comments about news, tips or just general check-ins from my readers. Maybe a third of those tips turned into actual stories, but I found that this group of people was likely to engage with my coverage as I was reporting and providing updates through this Facebook group just as much as they would after I published an article.

I learned the importance of putting my community/audience first by listening to what they valued and found important. In return, I let them feel like they were as up-to-date on news reports as I was, allowing them to share and engage with my status updates or tweets as I was reporting a story, not only after it was published.

Me: What don't newspapers and legacy outlets get about inspiring readership, connections and loyalty from millennials?

Josh: I think for a long time journalists and publishers have been in a position to take the reader for granted. But that is no longer true. We have to build meaningful relationships with our communities at many levels. There are various models for what this relationship looks like -- subscribers, donors, members, readers, etc... -- but I think millennials relate more as fans. I don’t think many in journalism fully understand how to cultivate, serve and build support from fans. However, I do think that is a place where podcasts have excelled. How might we rethink the way we develop audience connections and engagement if we were trying to collaborate with people as fans rather than more transactional relationships like subscribers?

Chris: I'm going to answer this indirectly, and just note that it's been a little easier than I thought for Billy Penn to break news and shape millennial opinion after five months -- because no one else is really covering, in-depth, the stuff we're covering. Things like ride-sharing, bike-sharing and campus crime trends are just not the province of the dailies here, and -- still -- the TV stations in town sort of follow that coverage in a herd. So, yeah, for us it was picking spots. We care about X, Y and Z, let's try to own as much of that as we can… And making sure we have something relevant to say in a pretty timely way.

Shannan: I think traditional news organizations should pay more attention to the millennials they have on their own staffs. Let them lead. Give them the freedom to be authentic and use their own voice in reporting. Listen to the millennials in your office when they tell you about issues their friends care about. They know how to connect to their peers, so turn to them for advice and show that you value their perspective.

Image CC-licensed on Flickr via kris krug

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