What “engagement” means to Voice of San Diego’s Grant Barrett

Grant Barrett, Voice of San Diego‘s new engagement editor, knows his job title is a funny one. But he doesn’t think the work he’s doing is new. Engagement is just “putting a name to a job that anybody who’s been on the Internet for awhile is already doing,” he says. “There’s nothing novel about what I’m doing, or any engagement editor is doing.”

Maybe that’s true, but the concepts are sure new to bunches of news providers. Which is we why so many of us are curious about what people like Grant are up to. The job title, Grant says, could be called a web editor or community manager in other places. It’s just a combination of skill sets. (Here’s how VOSD advertised the position.)

My goal in talking to Grant (at the crack of dawn San Diego time, when he made time for me before his Monday got into high gear) was to find out what “engagement” looks like in his world. Here’s what he said it is:

Meeting folks, at events around town and at monthly coffees VOSD hosts to bring in committed users for a chat with the staff.

Hosting events, like an upcoming debate about a sales tax issue.

Moving users along the spectrum of participation, from commenter to letter writer to op-ed contributor to regular blogger.

And here’s the big one: getting content in front of the right eyeballs. Often, that means the power players in the city, who Grant sees as a core target group. They’re well connected and likely to share content. Sometimes, the right eyeballs aren’t easy to find. One skill Grant says is critical is having unstoppable google-fu, and tracking down the audience the content is likely to resonate with. An example is this story about a horseshoer that was republished by a group here. Grant found the right email list and sent around a link, and a story that otherwise might have gone largely unnoticed found modest success.

That, in a nutshell, is Grant’s job: getting the content to the right readers, and bringing the right readers to the content. Hunting down the people who need to see it, even calling folks (like, on a telephone!) to introduce them to the content, and then hoping they find value in it. That’s the key to getting the content shared, which in the world of publicity and marketing is called earned media — publicity you didn’t have to pay for.

Grant is big on what he calls the “tough slog” — plugging away, day after day. Be the tortoise. Don’t count on the big hit to solve your problems. Don’t hope that putting “sex” in a headline will build readership. That stuff won’t matter in the long term. “We don’t work for big wins. We strive for steady success,” is the mantra.

He finds it refreshing to talk about content. The reporters are the ones doing the real work, in finding what’s important to people and delivering it. “Sometimes I feel like all I’m doing is doing an interpretive dance around the edges of the real concert.” In other words, engagement starts with the content.

Things Grant is less focused on than some:

Getting too caught up in web analytics, especially keywords and search terms, which he thinks aren’t as important in a local market. VOSD isn’t designed with an eye toward bringing in huge traffic. The staff is more interested in reaching the right audience: civic-minded San Diegans who care about their city and want it to improve. Grant says he cares much more about the number of subscriptions to the morning news blast email than he does about overall visitors.

Social media. It plays a role in VOSD’s overall strategy (Twitter page here), but it’s not the Holy Grail. He thinks old-fashioned email is getting overlooked as a valuable tool.

If you read about my interview with Steve Buttry at TBD (one of the few people in the country who basically shares Grant’s job title) you’ll notice some differences. I hope a series of posts like these can help us drill down on what we mean when we talk about engagement.

Side note: Voice of San Diego is a grandfather figure in the nonprofit, local journalism world. As such, its leaders, along with some cool partners, have started a site called The Hub, meant to be a resource for other startup efforts. It’s worth checking out.

This was originally posted on the blog of the Reynolds Journalism Institute, where I am a 2010-2011 fellow.

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