What “engagement” means to the Chicago Tribune

My conversation last week with James Janega at the Chicago Tribune surprised the heck out of me. After spending several weeks interviewing folks at small community operations, I expected my interviews with with large organizations like the Tribune to be more like the one I had with the Associated Press, whose focus is on social media strategies.

Nope. The Chicago Tribune is all about face-to-face interactions.

James is the manager of Trib Nation, which is the paper’s blog and the umbrella for outreach efforts. He says his job is to build bridges between the newsroom and its communities. For James, that means being in constant conversation with readers — with an emphasis on listening — and doing that primarily in person.

The Tribune hosts community discussions, often based around a topic the staff is sensing interest in. The economy. Parenting. Health. It works like this: The newsroom uses its connections to find the right panelists, then charges $10 per person for the event and the wine and cheese reception afterward. Sometimes, as the events are incorporated into a business model, there are event sponsors. And hundreds of people show up.

Other kinds of events are focused on inviting the community into the paper, like an upcoming chat with the advice columnist, and a celebration of a new photography book from the Tribune’s shooters.

“People who come feel a connection with and an investment in the news organization,” James says. He considers the mingling time at the end of the events the most valuable because the community members meet the real people behind what can seem like a monolithic brand.

The Tribune also hosts Chicago Live!, a weekly stage and radio show done in partnership with The Second City comedy troupe. Those events recreate the serendipity of reading a newspaper, he says, bouncing between humor and impact and acting as a manifestation of the Chicago experience.

In-person events like these (and occasional Tweetups) are part of the new business model, and folks at the Tribune see them as an alternative publishing platform, just like RedEye or TribLocal. The real benefits seem to be threefold:
— real, personal connections between the staff and the community
— an opportunity to listen for what’s important to the community (sometimes in direct conversation, sometimes just hanging around and eavesdropping)
— a aggressively expanded source base, tracked in a spreadsheet and available to reporters

I had a follow-up email conversation with Margaret Holt, who is the standards editor for the Tribune. She wrote:

“One of the things we have learned in the past 2 1/2 years is that this is not a mass medium, even if it has a very large audience. People relate to the Chicago Tribune in a very singular, personal way.”

She went on:

“In some respects, everything old is new again. We are doing what journalists have always done — putting ourselves back in the middle of the town square and the conversations so that we can fuel the talk, participate in it, guide it, listen to it and act on it. By, through, with and about us.”

I often ask editors if they feel like their organizations are working to make their communities a better place. James didn’t hesitate in his answer. Yes. Actively.

Chicago Tribune editorial vision
Photo from James Janega

This picture represents the newsroom mission, and standing up for the community is at the top. The sign hangs in the newsroom, and decisions at news meetings (about what to cover, story play, etc.) are made with this vision in mind. (I’ve worked in one special, unusual newsroom that had a clearly articulated and understood mission, and that’s the Columbia Missourian, which is managed by faculty here at Mizzou. None of the larger newsrooms I’ve been a part of were that mission-driven. If you know of others that are, will you let me know?)

James says the real business proposition at the heart of all of this is to remake a media company, built around engagement with its readers. “This is the right thing to do anyway, but it’s probably indispensable in the 21st century, when you have so many options” for news and information.

So, here’s that pesky question again: What does success look like? How do you know if you’ve achieved this thing we call engagement?

James says that so far, his evidence includes:
— increased blog traffic
— more positive than negative attention on social media (more promoters than detractors)
— more story tips
— more invitations from the community for Tribune staff to be a part of events
— more attendance at company-sponsored events

And, of course, what he’s hearing from the community. “The job is to build meaningful bridges, not numbers. That may be quantifiable down the line, but page views and time on site — even Facebook likes or blog comments — are only proxies for the real thing: Do people feel connected with the Chicago Tribune? Are we connecting with them? Other departments may be better at counting and quantifying those relationships. I’m a reporter. I’m good at picking up the phone, asking people questions, and listening very, very carefully.”

Margaret calls James the lead singer in a very large ensemble, leading the charge to respect the audience. She wrote:

“I went to J-School at Missouri, and in my very first reporting class, the instructor told us to think about who the audience was. Somehow, journalism lost its way the past 15 years or so. Somehow, the media world got out of balance, putting far too much weight on what we thought people should know and far too little on what they wanted to know. Somehow, a lot of very smart people became contemptuous of readers and worried far more about what other journalists thought than what readers really wanted and needed. We must respect our readers, our colleagues and our community at large.”

When James got a chance to read Margaret’s quote, he wanted to emphasize that there’s no need to fear audience input. They won’t say they want more Brittney Spears. (I wrote about that fear here.) The goal is to ask people what’s going on in their lives, what they wish the newspaper would do, and whether there’s a gap between the two. “And then we think about whether we can or should narrow that gap given our journalistic responsibilities, and how we might do it in a meaningful way,” he wrote back.

The series the Tribune has started on municipal pensions is a good example. James says he knows from his interactions with readers that they’re worried about this very important issue — worried “in great detail and with a high degree of sophistication.” The analytics back him up. The story was in the top 10 for chicagotribune.com on Wednesday, along with mayoral politics, sports, the economy and … the guy in Wisconsin who shot his TV over the Bristol Palin’s latest Dancing With the Stars performance. (Nine out of 10 ain’t bad.)

By the way, the Tribune does of course have social media strategies (under the venerable efforts of Colonel Tribune), including several Twitter and Facebook accounts. But in a lengthy conversation about engagement, those platforms just weren’t the focus.

The news folks across the country who have engagement as part of their job description are spending their time on drastically different, though absolutely worthy, tasks. Part of what I’m hoping to do with my fellowship year is suggest more specific words that we as journalists could be using, so we know exactly what we’re working for. If you have ideas about that, I’d love to hear them.

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


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