Read Write Web yesterday published the results of a fascinating analysis of news outlets’ social media efforts. Adam Sherk used an API from an analytics company called PostRank to take a look at how news organizations’ traffic compares to their engagement. He came up with an “engagement per unique visitor” ranking. The results are interesting (at the top of the list, by a wide margin, is The Guardian, followed by Slate and The New York Times). But what’s more applicable to the work I’m doing this year is the measurement tool itself.
Lately, I’ve been immersed In a sea of motivated, passionate, scrappy people making a go of it in community news, trying a bunch of techniques and wondering what will work. It was therefore a yank into another world — an equally hard-working but more grounded world — to spend an hour on the phone with Tracy Record, editor and co-publisher of West Seattle Blog. Don’t get me wrong — Tracy’s passion for her work drives her to work long and hard. But my sense from talking to her is that she’s been at this long enough that she knows what works and does it.
Tracy didn’t set out to create a community news site. She kept an anonymous neighborhood blog as a hobby, then found herself providing crucial information in the middle of a weather emergency. That event spurred more page views, news tips, word-of-mouth referrals and search traffic. “I wrote about things I saw and was wondering about, in a casual, informal way. They were things people ended up googling about,” Tracy says. And they were things no one else was writing about. So in 2007, she quit her job and dedicated her full-time self to WSB, along with her husband and partner, Patrick Sand, who handles sales, does a lot of community relations work and helps with news coverage.
The staff at TBD.com, the D.C. news startup that launched in August, is about 40 people. Six of them have community engagement as their primary function. Four are community hosts. One is a social media producer. And one is their boss, Steve Buttry, the director of community engagement.
(Lots of folks have written about TBD, including The Washington Post, The Nieman Journalism Lab, the American Journalism Review and Newsonomics. And if you missed their coverage of the Discovery Channel gunman, check it out.)
I got a chance to talk to Steve about TBD, audiences and what the heck engagement actually means. It’s a word that, as my colleague David Cohn likes to say, means everything and nothing. So my question on this day is, what does it mean to Steve, and to TBD. I figured he’d have an opinion, since the word is in his freakin’ job title.
He says engagement comes down to two-way communication, along with a feeling of affiliation. When a media company is engaged with its community, that’s a meaningful relationship — one that doesn’t involve a “we know what’s good for you” gatekeeper’s attitude. It’s reciprocal, and valued.
Consider traditional journalism as a scene from “The Wizard of Oz.”
“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.” There’s a hint of some journalists I know in that statement. Don’t worry, audience. We know what we’re doing. We know what’s important, and we’re putting it out into the universe for you to consume and enjoy. Transparency, if we claim to practice it, too often means a weekly column from an editor, not processes that are truly open and viewable, and able to be participated in.
“Count yourself lucky,” the Great and Powerful Oz says. We’re here to serve you, but only in the ways we deem acceptable. We’re a bit afraid to ask what you want, because we’re afraid you want entertainment coverage. So instead we’ll use our professional judgment to tell you what you should know. “The Great Oz has spoken.” Too often, we’re proud of being uninfluenced — by sources, certainly, but also by consumer desire.
If you go to OaklandLocal.com and click on “About,” you’ll find these phrases:
— democratize access
— partner with community organizations
— make their voices heard
— community service
— we teach
— we welcome all who wish to contribute
… along with these phrases:
— original investigative and feature reporting
— community news and information
— voice of independent journalism
As someone who’s spent my career in print newsrooms, I’m totally familiar with the second list. The first one looks interesting, but attaching it to the second one is a bold move — one I hope to explore this year as a Reynolds Journalism Institute fellow.
What happens when an organization’s mission statement sets out the goal of enriching a community, along with providing information? What if those goals conflict? What about journalistic independence and objectivity? Journalists have spent a lot of years fostering independence, taking pride in being uninfluenced — by sources, certainly, but also by readers. We’ve basically worked toward separateness, not togetherness. And that independence might still be valuable in some areas of journalism. But should it still be a central paradigm? (Sound familiar? Some of this echoes conversations around public journalism over the past 15 years. I’ll write more about that soon.)