What “engagement” means to The Guardian’s Meg Pickard

Meg Pickard, The Guardian’s head of digital engagement, has a little diagram that gets so perfectly to the heart of this thing we call engagement that I giggled through her explanation of it, so amazed at its crystal clarity.

The horizontal line is the process of journalism. The vertical line represents publication. Above the line are the actions of journalists. Those folks traditionally work really hard up until publication, then return to the beginning to start something new. Below the line are the users, whose role has always come after publication, reacting and sharing.

The other two quadrants are empty. And that’s where Meg’s work lies.

Joy’s recreation of Meg’s drawing

After publication, how can/should journalists stay involved with the content? What’s their responsibility or opportunity for tending the fire they started? For raising the child they birthed? For nurturing the community they fed?

Before publication, how can/should users be involved? How can their interests, insight and expertise shape what we do? How can they contribute to conversations, and to stories?

How can journalists collaborate with readers to better understand, explore or reflect subjects or experiences?

One reason Meg can make a model that describes what the rest of us are fumbling around is that her background is in social anthropology. (Why is it we keep turning to other journalists to solve problems journalists aren’t trained to solve? But I digress ….) In school, Meg studied what makes membership in a community valid. If you follow the guidelines about what joins people together in a community, will you be an authentic member yourself? She then translated that online, to cyberethnography, and from there to work in content channels at AOL.

Since Meg joined The Guardian four years ago, she’s had three job titles. But each of them has been a version of “engagement,” involving interactivity, participation and the intersection of audience and community. She spends time with journalists on what it means to feed, support and nurture communities — to form relationships and add value. And to be an authentic part of the communities they cover.

Four years ago, she says she had to bribe people with food so they’d come to meetings. She credits strong leadership at the top of the organization for the huge turnaround. “Everyone’s got the memo,” she says. “The hard sell now isn’t whether, it’s how” they incorporate a collaborative spirit into their work. There’s a strong mandate for it from the top. (Which is consistent with the results I’ve gotten from my online poll about who needs engagement training the most.)

The organization is dedicated to understanding the value of an authentic relationship with a community. The goal is mutual benefit. How do you help communities do what they already want to do, tapping into their needs, motivations and interests? The Scott Trust, which owns The Guardian, has core values that are consistent with collaboration and respect, and Meg’s sense is that that attitude is prevalent in the newsroom.

Mutualization is the word that The Guardian leadership uses to describe readers becoming part of the process. (This Poynter column outlines some projects that have been improved by collaboration.) Meg is clear in saying that mutualization isn’t a destination, it’s a journey. It’s an evaluation of routines and values. Now that the newsroom is on board, her role has morphed from cheerleader to cat herder. She’s sort of an internal consultant, helping journalists connect the dots and nudging them in the right direction.

Engagement is the job of every journalist, Meg says, but her primary contacts in the newsroom are folks called community coordinators. They’re spread around the desks in the newsroom, focused on content areas. Their job is basically to be a bridge between editor and user. They’re part host, part researcher, part social media manager, part evangelist for user ideas. (Man, that sounds fun.) She wears her anthropologist hat when meeting with these coordinators, getting a sense of what’s working, how communities are responding and acting, and what solutions are needed.

When I asked about specific strategies, Meg said the journalists are charged with being authentic individuals — participating in communities and conversations because they’re genuinely interested, not with the primary goal of broadcasting their content. The idea isn’t to muscle in and then exploit your access. Share your passion (and if you’re not passionate about your beat, why are you here?), become part of a community, listen as well as talk, add and receive value, and go from there. The hat you put on as a journalist doesn’t come off as you’re interacting as an individual. It lives peacefully in conjunction with the rest of your life, and the organization should trust you to be a smart, respectful ambassador.

I then asked the question I always save for the end of these interviews: What does success look like? How do you know if you’re achieving “engagement”? Meg said she works with smart analytics folks, and they’re constantly evaluating which metrics are most valuable. But she said the challenge is that what works for one kind of content isn’t at all applicable to another. An example: One columnist routinely gets 1 million page views and more than 1,000 comments per article. His measures of success can’t possibly be applied to a gardening blog. Meg and others try to look at patterns of user activity, and specifically at when the journalists’ decisions and actions seem to influence user activity. She also likes to pay attention to how often readers are contributing to content, and The Guardian tracks that by actually giving them a byline.

Meg fully expects to have another title within 18 months. In her case, an obsolete job description just might equal success.

UPDATE: Meg wrote about this concept and model in 2010.

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


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