I’m sure most people in your newsroom could provide examples of some of your most-read stories. The one that got shared hundreds or thousands of times. The one that got linked from Google News. The one that keeps finding new audience, months after it originally published.
To be sure, there’s benefit in celebrating your wild successes.
But I think there might be more useful knowledge gained by spending time at the other end of metrics report. What coverage are you investing in that isn’t finding an audience?
Low readership numbers can be due to a lot of things:
- Maybe a story was published at an awkward time and was pushed too quickly off its section page front.
- Maybe the headline didn’t do it justice.
- Maybe it didn’t get effectively (or at all) published to social platforms.
- Maybe there’s a built-in audience for the story that would love it but just didn’t find it, and some outreach would be worthwhile. (Related post: Who’s the story’s audience?)
- Maybe people got everything they needed from the social post or excerpt on the home page and didn’t feel compelled to click for more information.
- And maybe the subject just didn’t interest your readers.
Regardless of which answer applies, don’t you want to know what you’re investing staff time in that is hardly getting seen? So you could then do something differently?
At times of such intense staffing shortages, wouldn’t you love to use data to know what you can stop doing?
Is there any better compliment to the work of journalists than to say it was a community service?
Not in my world.
I just learned that one of my last community outreach team’s big projects at the Columbia Missourian won a community service award in the Missouri Press Association’s annual Better Newspaper Contest. (Here’s the Missourian story about its 56 awards.)
During my last semester with the Missourian, the University of Missouri campus was going through a time of intense turmoil, and the issue of race was at the heart of it. A student’s hunger strike, the resignations of the top officials, regular protests, a free speech debate — and in the middle of it all was a newsroom staffed by Mizzou students and run by Mizzou journalism faculty, trying to figure out how we could best be of service and help draw connections.
The duties of my community outreach team had never been more needed. We used every tool in our toolbox to monitor the mood and needs of the community. We wanted to know what they wanted to know, but we also sought to discover what was making them feel mad, hopeful, scared or disconnected. We hosted and participated in conversations, and we did a lot of listening.
I’m helping organize a Poynter summit on audience engagement. (It’s Aug. 29 in New York, and you should grab one of the remaining seats!) One of the panels will look at inclusion as it relates to community work. In a planning call this week, the speakers (the amazing Anika Gupta, Andrew Haeg and Michelle Ferrier) asked questions like:
- Who are we engaging with?
- Who do we WISH we were engaging with?
- Why do we think people will want to engage with us? What would their motivation be?
- Does our interest in our communities feel authentic or self-serving?
The conversation has me chewing on some overlaps between community journalism and gaming or other niche communities.
Join me in mulling over this question: How does it feel when newbies (noobs in gaming vernacular) dive into something you know a lot about, overestimate how much they really know, mischaracterize your culture or truth and don’t seem to care or even be aware?
When people ask what I do, I can answer a lot of different ways. Engagement, after all, means a lot of things.
I found myself yesterday morning reverting to what might be my favorite description, though. In a conversation with Brian Ries, engagement editor at the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, about strategies his newsroom might try, we discussed how it all comes down to invitations.
What are you inviting your users to do?
The default answer usually comes down to consumption. Most of our communication efforts with readers/listeners/viewers/followers have two things in common:
- The goal is to get as many people as possible to click/read/listen/watch the journalism we have produced.
- They efforts are not specifically targeted but instead are a mass invitation to anyone whose attention we can get.
It’s not hard to move beyond that, but it does take a shift in mindset.
Audience-focused, engaged journalism wants more than consumption. It wants participation. Criticism. Discussion. Collaboration. Empowerment.
In the past few days, I’ve consumed a lot of journalism. Some of it is the kind of information that can be found all over the place, from any number of news outlets. Is Florida in for its first tropical storm of the season? What should I know about Hillary Clinton’s email? How’s Serena doing at the French Open?
When you ask people about “journalism” or “the media” (maybe my least-favorite two words of all time), they often think first about these sorts of stories. But “journalism” and even “news” encompass so much more. People consume a lot of journalism without realizing they’re doing it, and certainly without considering the investment needed to produce it. (I wrote more about perceptions of “news” a couple of weeks ago.)
Journalists are justifiably frustrated that people don’t respect where all that information comes from. But complaining doesn’t fix the problem.
Instead, we need to do a better job communicating our value. What makes us credible sources of information? What do we offer that helps people live their lives? Why are we worth peoples’ investment of time and money? (That’s one of the questions at the core of a project I’m working on to do with using social media to build trust.)
Here’s a look at 8 pieces of journalism I’ve consumed in the last few days. Turns out “the media” have helped me understand my world, my country, my community and my family.
- Maggie Menderski at the Sarasota Herald-Tribune wrote about a huge development being planned for a spot just 10 minutes from my house. She got the scoop at a retail conference in Las Vegas. Sending her to Nevada represents an investment of manpower and dollars on the part of my local newspaper. Don’t we want journalists keeping an eye on projects that shape our communities’ growth?
- Another Herald-Tribune reporter, Shelby Webb, took a deep dive into our local public school district’s rate of expulsions. Sarasota has a higher rate of “expulsion without educational services” than any other district in Florida. That’s a controversial fact that deserves unpacking, and doing so takes massive time. Do you want journalists telling you about how kids in your community are educated?
- Jessica Contrera at The Washington Post goes deep with the screen habits of a 13-year-old girl. I eat stories like this up because I love learning about how other people use technology. It’s vital for anyone who produces things consumed on screens. It’s also important for parents trying to keep tabs on kids’ screen use. Stories like this take so much time — finding the right family to work with, gaining trust, earning access and then spending enough time with them that you can authentically represent their lives/habits. Are you interested in journalism to help you understand other peoples’ lives and how the world is changing? (Also, this companion piece about teen jargon is hilarious.)
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