The staff at TBD.com, the D.C. news startup that launched in August, is about 40 people. Six of them have community engagement as their primary function. Four are community hosts. One is a social media producer. And one is their boss, Steve Buttry, the director of community engagement.
(Lots of folks have written about TBD, including The Washington Post, The Nieman Journalism Lab, the American Journalism Review and Newsonomics. And if you missed their coverage of the Discovery Channel gunman, check it out.)
I got a chance to talk to Steve about TBD, audiences and what the heck engagement actually means. It’s a word that, as my colleague David Cohn likes to say, means everything and nothing. So my question on this day is, what does it mean to Steve, and to TBD. I figured he’d have an opinion, since the word is in his freakin’ job title.
He says engagement comes down to two-way communication, along with a feeling of affiliation. When a media company is engaged with its community, that’s a meaningful relationship — one that doesn’t involve a “we know what’s good for you” gatekeeper’s attitude. It’s reciprocal, and valued.
His staff encourages engagement by being available, personable, human and funny, both in person and online. TBD throws parties, for their network of bloggers (more on that below) and for the community. Probably my favorite quote of Steve’s from our chat is this one: “Journalists love parties. We’re just used to partying alone.” (And we know I love the party metaphor.) The staff members highlight the fact that they’re real people, and objectivity plays no role in that. (He used adult language to describe how he felt about the notion of objectivity, as a matter of fact.)
Communities want to be engaged with each other, Steve says. They want to share a collective experience. TBD is experimenting with what the sharing of a collective experience looks like in the digital world, as a media company.
Here’s an example: In June, people around D.C. were getting a kick out of a YouTube video of a headphone-wearing dude rocking’ out to music only he could hear on the DC metro. Later in the summer, another metro-related video was sent around. TBD found a few others and put together a poll for the site — “Vote for your favorite Metro video.”
Funny, right? So I asked Steve who’s idea the thing was. He said it’s hard to trace. “We engage with what people are talking about. That’s how conversation is sometimes.” Conversation, eh? Sure, he said. You could say that the thing started with Steve, because it was his idea to put the poll up. Or to his staff member who found the other videos and made the poll. Or credit could go to the creator of the second video, which turned an isolated case into a trend. Or back to the first video, for getting people talking. But Steve doesn’t much care. News people are used to seeking credit, he says. And holding onto control. His newsroom is attempting to reflect what the community is talking about and make contributions to the discussions.
His four community hosts spend most of their time interacting, and finding conversation. They work with the network of bloggers, mining their content and taking part in conversations on their blogs. As of today, there are 167 blogs listed as part of the network, and the topics are as wide-ranging as you might expect 167 individual voices to be. Check out the tagline: “We all make the news. Better.” The bloggers also contribute to the traditional news, like when a University of Maryland blogger whose topic is bathrooms (yes, really) sent in info about a fire on campus.
More on the day-to-day duties: The community hosts use Google alerts and other tools to find out what the community is talking about. They talk to people on Twitter, as individuals and as the official TBD voice. (Note: Steve says he actually got the name “host” from the “reporter/host” title at the Civil Beat in Hawaii. I’ll share more about what they’re doing there soon.)
Steve says he hears journalists say they don’t have time to be on Twitter. “I don’t have time not to,” he says. “It’s one of the ways I connect with folks. It’s part of my job.”
So what does a good day look like for Steve and his staff? “We’re in a conversation, and people are connecting to us and sharing our content. That’s a good day.”
UPDATE: Compare this post to a similar one about engagement at Voice of San Diego.
This was originally posted on the blog of the Reynolds Journalism Institute, where I am a 2010-2011 fellow.