Despite their initial promise, online platforms have not provided newsrooms the sustainable connection to their audiences many were hoping for. At the same time, technology continues to rapidly evolve and political pressures on the news industry have increased worldwide.
A new report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, “What if scale breaks community?” explores how news organizations are adapting to more strongly connect with their audiences amid these challenges. It’s the third report in a series from Reuters’ “Journalism Innovation Project,” a Facebook-funded initiative focused on learning from newsrooms in the Global South — a break from traditional journalism research that often focuses on news outlets in the west.
“I think that’s one of the most innovative parts of the project as a whole,” lead author Julie Posetti told IJNet.
Posetti’s team looked at how three newsrooms in the Global South — Rappler in the Philippines, The Quint in India, and Daily Maverick in South Africa — were once able to engage large-scale audiences using online platforms. Now, they’re encountering malicious actors weaponizing online communities, and combating “platform capture,” or how large tech companies manipulate them into over-dependence on their frequently changing priorities.
Recognizing that they can no longer rely on online platforms, outlets are instead innovating new ways to connect with key audiences, including targeted newsletter strategies, offline events, grassroots organizing and membership programs.
“I’ve always been conscious of the manifestations of ingenuity that come from people who are ‘up against it,’” said Posetti, who carried out extensive interviews and embedded herself for week-long stints at each of the newsrooms for the study.
Take Rappler, for one. Launched in 2012 as a Facebook page, the Philippine news outlet has made a name for itself through investigations into the deadly drug war carried out by President Rodrigo Duterte and his administration.
Through their work, Rappler’s staff have witnessed political actors weaponize online communities against the press. Their reporters — their female staff, in particular — have experienced unprecedented levels of harassment online.
Rappler’s audience was shrinking as a result, and so was their business. It’s at this point that organizations need to truly test innovation, according to Posetti. “Without an audience, what’s the point of a journalism organization?” she said.
Rappler began controlling their online communities through heavily moderated comments sections. They also hosted regular events around the Philippines, launched a crowdfunding campaign and membership program, and continued to support Move.PH, their newsroom’s civic engagement arm.
The Quint and Daily Maverick adopted similar strategies to better engage their audiences. They’ve invested in grassroots movements and encouraged their readers to take action on the issues they draw attention to. “What these organizations are doing is very much being invested in their communities at a local and national level,” said Posetti.
They’ve also pivoted to membership.
Daily Maverick has experienced notable success with its membership model, which has accounted for 22% of their revenue so far in 2019. The South African news outlet is outpacing The Quint and Rappler in membership success, perhaps because they never relied as much on social media to drive engagement in the first place, the report notes. Daily Maverick innovated with other engagement methods instead, such as events and newsletters.
Posetti hopes readers of the report recognize that its lessons can be applied to news outlets outside the areas her team studied. The challenges these newsrooms are facing are not limited to the Global South, after all. All over the world, news organizations and their reporters are experiencing online harassment, the weaponization of online communities through political pressure, platform capture — in many forms — and more.
“We hope these news organizations’ experiences, trials, mistakes and learning help guide news organizations globally, as the ‘breakage’ of online communities caused by the manipulation and ‘weaponization’ of audiences —at scale— is ‘ported’ to the West,” said Posetti in a press release for the report.
Taken in tandem with the findings from the earlier Journalism Innovation Project reports, it’s clear that innovation comes in many forms — not just through embracing new technologies. In total, the project has examined how news organizations avoid exhaustion from pivoting formats, fight misinformation campaigns online and, in this most recent report, build sustainable audiences.
“There’s a lot to ponder here for the rest of us,” said Posetti. “What is the essential set of qualities of journalism innovation?”
The Frontline Club will host a panel discussion about the themes of the report in partnership with the International Center for Journalists on November 12th, featuring Maria Ressa, Julie Posetti, Nabeelah Shabbir and ICFJ President Joyce Barnathan.
Lead researcher Julie Posetti is Global Director of Research at the International Center for Journalists.