I’m spending a couple of days with community newspaper folks at the Reynolds Journalism Institute, and I led a discussion this afternoon about questions that make journalism more social.
I threw out a few topics to chew on, and one of them was this:
Where, offline and online, are people in your community talking to each other about what’s going on in town?
It’s easy to talk about online conversations (and boy, do I spend a lot of time doing that). But I also really love talking about what’s happening offline. Face to face, eyeball to eyeball. Over coffee, beer or sports. Over shared interests, shared geography or just an accidental shared location.
Wherever the public is gathered, journalists have an opportunity to be listening. They also have an opportunity to be distributing content customized for that specific gathering, situation or news need.
Here’s what I heard from community journalists today about where in their towns people frequently discuss community life. What would you add?
- Sports events (youth and high school)
- Beauty shops and barbershops
- Coffee shops
- Cultural events
- Post offices
- Chamber functions
- Grocery stores
- Standing in line anywhere
I really enjoyed Jack Murtha’s piece in CJR today about how audience engagement editors are guiding online discussions. It covers a lot of the kind of work I do and also touches on some familiar tensions in newsrooms about how audience contributions do or don’t influence the traditional journalism.
I especially appreciate this lovely description of the job.
(Audience engagement editors) are the children of the copy editor, the public editor, and the paperboy. Instead of grammar and style, this new breed of editor crafts online tone and relationships with readers. Web traffic and, if subtly, advertising dollars depend on their work. Together, their efforts help tear down a perception that the media is declarative and deaf to how readers interact with its work.
I want to contribute a reason I love online comments and encourage my newsroom to invest in them: They help make our journalism better, and they are evidence that we’re being genuinely responsive to the information needs of the people we aim to serve.
We should want questions and ideas from readers, right? Even when they make us do more work?
Here are two examples of really constructive comments from my newsroom’s readers just last week.
One story got two follow-up questions that led to additional reporting from the two reporters. One of the reporters replied with detailed answers to both readers. Here’s what eager readers want to know about golf carts in Columbia.
On another story, a reader actually questioned something we let a source get away with saying. After a shooting at a VFW, a source told us this:
Bart Belgya, 70, sat at the bar Tuesday and smoked a cigarette. The Vietnam vet said he didn’t think the shooter would have the guts — though he used a more colorful term — to come back when veterans were around. All the veterans are expert marksmen here, he said, and all know how to handle a situation with a gun.
Chrys Wu is a journalist-turned-user engagement strategist. When I called to ask her what engagement is and how journalists can achieve it, she offered stellar nuggets of wisdom. I’ll share a few here.
— Engagement (and, really, we should use more specific words so we know what we’re talking about) is about the things we do to develop a relationship between us and the people who are interested in what we’re doing. It’s not just about pushing out content.
— Engagement forms an emotional bond between you and your community. Think of it as developing a good customer relationship. “If you do engagement well, however you define it, what you’re essentially doing is creating happy customers,” Chrys says. “When people have an attachment to you, they’re less likely to leave” when presented with other options. Help them feel something about what you’re doing.
— Offline and online engagement can be seamless, if you have a community that’s interested in what you’re doing. Your strategies for connecting with them may not be the same online and off, but your motivation for creating relationships might be consistent.
— If you have limited staffing, don’t feel like you have to be everywhere your users are. Be strategic about how and where you spend your time.
— Understand that there are lots of valid ways to communicate. Don’t be fooled into thinking there’s One Right Way, for social media in particular. There are cultural norms that are good to be aware of, but there’s no single recipe for success. If someone tells you you’re “doing it wrong,” don’t conform without giving it some thought. Make sure you’re meeting your objectives and the needs of your community, then don’t worry about what others think.
— For engagement efforts to work, cultural changes have to be company wide. One person dancing alone does not make an organization more engaged with its community.
This was originally posted on the blog of the Reynolds Journalism Institute, where I am a 2010-2011 fellow.
During a Skype chat, Mashable’s very smart community manager, Vadim Lavrusik, mentioned that part of the challenge of real engagement is learning what makes your audience tick. We have to get a sense of what they like, and what they respond to in us.
To me, what he was describing sounded like dating, in the get-to-know-you phase. You’re entering into a relationship with your audience, and you have to figure out what times of day they prefer which sorts of activities, what makes them mad, what makes them want to curl up and spend time together.
My second of two posts this week on using web analytics (read the first one here) comes by way of a recommendation from Mark Briggs. He told me about this “total brainiac engagement person” at Belo, the company that owns the TV station Mark now works for.
So I called Belinda Baldwin, the director of audience development for Belo. Belinda’s goal is to take the metric reports that her department creates for all Belo owned and operated TV stations, and make it understandable for newsrooms. Not just understandable, but meaningful and actionable.
During my fellowship year, I hope to not only figure out what engagement is but start to chip away at how we as journalists know if we’re achieving it.
Measuring presents plenty of challenges, not the least of which is assessing qualitative, not just quantitative, factors. How can I “measure” user comments? (Definitely not just by number.) How can I “measure” in-person conversations? How can I “measure” listening?
There are some things, though, that we can measure. I’ve written just a bit about social media analytics. I’m going to expand the analytics conversation here, based on what I’ve learned from some smart people.
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.