As part of my RJI fellowship, I conducted dozens of interviews with journalists and non-journalists about how a more social culture is changing the relationships between institutions and the people they serve. I talked to academics and practitioners. To people from the corporate world and nonprofit leaders. And I sought out journalists whose job duties include a focus on audience.
That’s what engagement really is, the way I’ve studied it: A focus on, respect for and enthusiasm about the role of the audience.
In my interviews with journalists, I asked questions about philosophy and overall outlook. But I also tried to get a sense of day-to-day practicalities. If you say you’re focused on the audience, what does that mean you’re doing in the newsroom today?
I took all the tips and strategies I heard and put them in a spreadsheet, then moved them around looking for themes. What emerged are these three categories: outreach, conversation and collaboration. When journalists told me what engagement meant to them, their strategies tended to fit nicely under one of those three umbrellas.
There is of course overlap between them, and some strategies could arguably fit in more than one. But I have found these terms to be useful in guiding specific, concrete conversations.
Outreach includes efforts to share ourselves, our expertise and our content with our community. It involves: Taking the content to the audience, rather than hoping they’ll find us. Identifying information needs, catering our products to meet them and distributing them in a way that makes sense. Being willing to participate in the community as individuals, building connections and personalizing our brand. Inviting the community to get to know our people and our processes. Enriching our community, sharing our own knowledge and supporting other community enrichment efforts.
Being in conversation with our community means listening as well as talking, and adjusting what we do and cover based on what we hear. It involves: Hosting discussions in person and online on topics that matter to the community. Participating in conversations we’re not hosting, both in person and online. Valuing how a continuing dialogue can make us better journalists and improves the journalism. Using web analytics to better understand what people are showing us they value in what we do, and basing at least some of our decisions about content and staff resources based on what we’re seeing. Recognizing that journalism is a process, not just a product, and involving more voices in the process means more diverse journalism.
Collaborating with our communities, the highest form of engagement, means we have a shared investment in and influence over our journalism. It involves: Soliciting and relying on user contributions. Soliciting and using user input about what we should cover and how we should allocate our resources. Valuing the role the users play in reacting to and sharing our content. Recognizing that we can accomplish things with the cooperation of the community that we could not do alone.