How NPR cultivates community: Talking engagement with Andy Carvin

This is one of two posts about NPR. The other is a conversation with Bob Boilen at All Songs Considered.

In the changing landscape of relationships between news organizations and their audiences, National Public Radio might just be unique. “A lot of people don’t see NPR as a brand or a consumer choice. They see it as a lifestyle choice. They see it as part of their identity,” says Andy Carvin, NPR’s senior strategist. “For the 3 million or so people who donate to their local member stations, they actually have a literal vested interest in our success.”

So when NPR uses social media, it’s definitely not just to distribute content. “It’s a way of furthering our mission to create a more informed public,” Andy says. “It’s a way to empower the people who love us and listen to the people who don’t.” The people on the other end of the relationship feel invested in the success of the product or story, and they seem eager to help.

Andy’s background provides a perspective on audience interactions that’s not often found in newsrooms. He’s been involved in online community organizing since 1994 (before I had an email address). And NPR is blessed with an audience that looks more like a community than its peers in national media.

Consider the fact that it’s not unusual to get more than 1,000 responses to questions posted on NPR’s main Facebook account. Even when the posts don’t include a specific prompt, the fans of the page will start talking on their own, and the space is often used to flesh out stories or find sources. The staff will post a story at the idea phase, asking for input and anecdotes. Posts also provide a place for conversation and reaction. Check out this health blog story on drinking soda for example. As of noon on Tuesday, it had 32 comments on the website, compared with 309 comments and 470 “likes” on the Facebook post.

One thing Andy says he and his colleagues have done to encourage that is to adjust their work based on key times for interaction. They noticed that afternoons and evenings — from 2 p.m. until 8 or 9 p.m. — saw the most active Facebook response. So in June, they adjusted their postings to take advantage of when people were already there, and saw a spike as a result.

Andy says he spends time brainstorming projects with folks across the newsroom, working with business development folks and strategizing about where NPR should be interacting and getting social. He’s an experimenter and an innovator.

Proof of that is the bold, extraordinary efforts he’s made in using social media to cover uprisings across the world. He told TechCrunch this week that he has been connected to unfolding events 15 to 16 hours a day, putting his iPhone down only to have dinner with his family and put his kids to bed (hear at the 10:50 mark). He also discussed the incredible support he’s getting from NPR’s management, who have allowed him to basically not do his job for seven weeks (at the 11:40 mark). For an example of how his work represents and benefits what public media have to offer, check out Nieman Lab’s piece on a donations to NPR stations as a result of Andy’s work.

Back at that back-burner-for-now day job, Andy works with three full-time folks and two interns whose jobs involve social media and managing the flagship accounts on Facebook and Twitter. In addition, most of the shows and news desks have someone who serves as a web producer and manages the show-specific social media. Andy is careful to point out that there’s no cookie-cutter approach to engagement — “What’s appropriate for the pop culture blog isn’t right for the science desk.”

For Andy, engagement is “any meaningful exchange” between the journalists and the users, or among the users. To measure the success of the engagement efforts, Andy has some metrics he takes into account, such as the growth rate of the Facebook page and Twitter accounts, the number of comments there and referral traffic to the website. An indicator that’s less tangible but equally important is whether engaging with the public has improved the story itself, by making it more robust, adding a layer of complexity or contributing diversity.

He also pays attention to how many of the newsroom staff are actively using social media tools. Andy says it’s important to look at the entire social graph — of individual reporters as well as NPR. Interaction happens on so many channels, and that makes keeping track of it — and measuring it — tricky. One thing that helped the whole newsroom get involved: NPR got Knight funding for training. Almost everyone in the newsroom was actually taken off their normal rotation for one to five weeks to learn about digital production and social media.

The investment is there (sometimes in surprising ways), on both sides of the relationship between NPR and its almost 1.5 million Facebook fans.

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

One Comment on “How NPR cultivates community: Talking engagement with Andy Carvin”

  1. […] i’ve been ← How I’ll teach community outreach at Mizzou How NPR cultivates community: Talking engagement with Andy Carvin […]

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