The Rise of Engagement: Online and in Real Life
This is Chapter 3 from a new report “Local Journalism in the Pacific Northwest: Why It Matters, How It’s Evolving, and Who Pays for It,” published last week by the Agora Journalism Center, University of Oregon. Read Chapter 1 (Why Local Journalism Still Matters) here, Chapter 2 on The Evolution of Local Journalism, as well as the Executive Summary also on Medium.
“An effective journalist has always been on a first-name basis with the movers and shakers of a town. With the coffee shop owner, the lunch spot waitress, the city manager, the mailman, and both the official and self-appointed ‘mayors’ in the neighborhood.”
— Caitlyn May, Editor, Cottage Grove Sentinel (Oregon)
Engagement was arguably the media buzzword of 2016. But definitions of this term vary. Most interviewees for this project agreed that engagement was important, but they were still endeavoring to define what it meant, how to prioritize it, and where their focus should be.
“We’re still trying to figure that out,” admits Mark Zusman, editor and publisher of Willamette Week (Portland, Oregon). “I mean, clearly on one level, if you’re talking about your website, it means having an increasing number of readers who are spending an increasing amount of time. And that’s sort of the base level of engagement.”
Of course, as Zusman and others outline, engagement can go beyond measurable outputs such as subscribers, website visitors, time on site, number of social shares, and other metrics. It is a label that can also be used to describe the emerging “engaged journalism” movement, which at its core envisions a changed relationship between journalists and communities, with journalists actively engaging in conversation with their communities.
Although their motivations may be different, both approaches to engagement are rooted in creating a deeper relationship with audiences, and we are seeing an increasing level of discussion and activity designed to place engagement at the heart of what many news organizations do.
These discussions are happening in organizations large and small, across multiple media platforms. Their impact can be seen in changing content styles, digital experimentation, and growth in efforts focused on real-world engagement. This includes physical events and forums, as well as other attempts at more community-focused journalism.
1. Five Strategic Drivers for Engagement
As briefly discussed, although engagement is informing journalistic output, there is also an underlying economic imperative. Local news providers are exploring new ways to engage audiences in order to create community impact and help secure their financial future.
Here are some of the key drivers for engagement amongst news organizations in the Pacific Northwest and beyond:
1. Double-down on relationships with existing audiences.
In particular, this includes looking to reduce fly-bys, developing brand loyalty in an increasingly media-brand-agnostic age, and seeking to maximize revenue from (more) faithful audiences.
2. Data-driven audience insights can shape new creative possibilities, including content rationalization, formatting, and expansion into new areas.
For news organizations, including local newsrooms such as the Klamath Falls Herald and News (Oregon), programs like the American Press Institute’s “Metrics for News” program are helping “to create data-driven content strategies.” 
This program can help local publishers determine the passions of their audiences, so they can use these insights to manage finite resources and focus their coverage accordingly. At a time when many newsrooms are shrinking, this can help managers determine where they should place their bets in beats, content framing, and prioritization of distribution platforms.
3. Create opportunities to unlock content and contributions from what NYU Professor Jay Rosen calls “the people formerly known as the audience.”
Publishers across the region are using guest contributors to fill content gaps (sometimes as a result of layoffs) and to broaden the plurality of voices they offer.
Sharon Chan, vice president of innovation, product and development for the Seattle Times (Washington) notes that “guest columns are really powerful, and we want to do more of them.”
However, she also reminds publishers that this approach is seldom a shortcut for securing great content. “Unfortunately, people always think we’re going to collect these great essays and just, like, publish them,” she says. “The reality is everyone needs editing. Especially people who don’t write for a living.”
4. Restore trust among disenfranchised news audiences.
In the current political climate, this driver is highly pertinent.
Economics aside, journalism is also contending with a challenging political climate and a large constituency that distrusts the media.
Research from Gallup in late 2016 reported that trust in the media at a record low, particularly among Republicans and younger and older Americans.
5. Find opportunities to secure — and grow — sources of revenue
This backdrop of declining trust and increased political opposition creates further challenges for a sector that has already been dramatically affected by the digital disruption of the wider media ecosystem.
As Les Zaitz, editor and publisher of the Malheur Enterprise (Vale, Oregon) argues, one implication of this trend is that, unless trust is restored, it will be difficult for many media companies to be viable businesses.
“If the significant majority of Americans — what, 80 percent or more — don’t trust us, then there is no way in my judgment that you will ever answer the question of how do you build a sustainable economic model so you can serve communities until you confront that,” Zaitz says.
Although 2016 data from Pew indicates that local media is more trusted than other sources, a potential impact of weakened trust levels — across the media spectrum — could be reduced engagement with news media at all levels, in terms of consumption and purchasing of content.
Naturally, the reverse is also true, with some news providers seeing a “Trump bump.”
However, the sustainability of this remains uncertain.
2. Traditional Measures of Engagement
Issues of trust, and the role they play in supporting fundamental financial needs, are clearly key drivers for engagement. Yet engagement goes beyond mere metrics and financial viability, as it can also impact on wider journalistic practice.
For news organizations, this can mean a changing relationship between journalists and the audiences they serve. Increasingly, concepts of engagement impact the way stories are told and created as well.
Building on the experience of 10 outlets in the Pacific Northwest, the remainder of this chapter offers a smorgasbord of how news organizations in the region are making sense of “engagement” both online and offline. Few outlets are embracing all of these opportunities, but many are implementing some of them (often as resources allow) and considering the potential of others.
Measuring Impact (Reach and Circulation)
Many local news organizations still place considerable importance on traditional engagement mechanisms, such as comments, Letters to the Editor, subscriptions, and online page views.
Logan Molen, publisher/CEO RG Media Company and the Eugene Register-Guard (Oregon) noted, for example, the volume — and quality — of the letters his paper still receives from readers:
I tweeted out late last year — it was right before the election — I think we got like 260 letters to the editor. And I tweeted it out, and the vice president at GateHouse Newspaper said, ‘Holy cow. That’s impressive.’ And then I thought, OK, well it’s just the election, it’ll die down. Well, in February we had 200 and some odd letters in a week, and that’s a lot of engagement, and it’s … really thoughtful engagement on issues that are of local and national importance.
Molen sees engagement as something that “goes beyond just liking a story or reading a story.” He’s keen to inspire an emotional reaction — good or bad — in his readers.
If somebody picks up our paper, visits our website, fires up the app, and then they’re done, and you haven’t triggered an emotional reaction in them … you’ve lost ’em. You just wasted their time. Every single touchpoint we have [is] a battle that we got to win, even if it’s bad.
For Jim Simon, the Seattle Times’ former managing editor, “There’s this other part of engaging with the community, which is building trust.” One clear way to do this, he suggests, is that “you need to be more transparent with communities about what we’re doing, which is sometimes no more than explaining what we do. I think that’s important.”
In a bid to be more answerable to his audience, the Eugene Register-Guard’s Logan Molen produces a semi-regular column called “Give and Take,” where “I’ll respond to their compliments or their concerns or their complaints. And so it gets posted online, and then I will engage with people with comment [there too].”
“I do that now because I think it’s important and fun,” he says, “but it’s sending a message that this is part of our job.”
This approach is part of a wider recognition that, whereas in a lot of journalism of the past, a journalist’s role often ceased when a story was written, that is no longer the case.
“For a long time, journalists had the luxury of just getting published and then running away and letting their stories go out into the wild and fend for themselves,” explains the Seattle Times’ Chan. “In old models of journalism, it was very much a one-way medium. Journalists gave their stories to the public.”
Creating a Feedback Loop Between Journalists and Audiences
This one-way relationship is beginning to change. Social media and online comments create spaces for post-publication feedback and discussion — environments many journalists inhabit and engage in.
Meanwhile, organizations like The Coral Project have created new tools to encourage listening and improved audience comments. News providers are adopting these applications and opportunities for engagement, factoring them into journalist workflows.
“What we’ve been trying to create at the Seattle Times, starting with the education area, is a loop,” says Chan. She outlines how this works:
Journalists are talking to readers through the journalism, readers are talking to [each] other — that journalism is inspiring other conversation between readers — and readers are also connecting back to the journalists themselves. And that conversation is actually shaping the journalism that comes forward. So it’s a loop in which the readers and the journalists have an exchange, and they build on one another.
Through this, Chan argues, “your journalism can actually have a much broader and deeper impact.”
Other traditional engagement models that are being deployed across the region — including listener panels, focus groups, and community advisory boards — are all working toward similar goals: garnering feedback and input from voices outside of the newsroom, promoting transparency and accessibility, and making journalists more accountable to their audience. Their role and importance seems set to grow as engagement becomes increasingly important.
3. Engagement in Storytelling and Storygathering
Through social media, events, and traditional (paper and email) correspondence, journalists have more opportunities than ever to engage with the public around their work.
This accessibility is influencing not only how audiences interact with content, but also the creation of new types of journalistic output.
Participation in the Story Process
“We did a project called The Recession Generation,“ recalls Jim Simon, former managing editor of the Seattle Times, “about people who graduated from college in 2009, in the teeth of the recession. [We] used graduates of three high schools to really get the stories from them from the bottom up.”
Sona Patel, who runs the New York Times’ efforts around crowdsourcing and reader-sourced reporting and co-leads the Gray Lady’s team of social media editors, led the initiative while she was still at the Seattle Times. As she explained to Adweek in 2012, this project is one of the first to have social media at its heart.
“It was the driving force of the project, because it was how we found a lot of people that we ended up featuring,” she says.
Patel’s team created private Facebook groups for each of the three high schools, with Adweek noting how “they cultivated the three groups by posting links to articles, engaging with members, and ultimately asking the members to take a survey on what life during the recession has been like. The paper was very clear and transparent that the stories might be used in a package for the paper.”
It was “an interesting experiment,” Jim Simon recalls, stressing the value that can be derived from engaging directly with communities on social media.
Putting the Audience in the Driver’s Seat
Simon also highlights the work done by Hearken in getting to getting readers to ask questions, and journalists and media outlets answer them. The company’s approach, as they pithily describe in their Twitter bio, is clear: “Listen to your audiences first, not last. Makes for better everything.”
- Audience members submit questions they’d like the newsroom to investigate.
- Journalists select a handful of those questions and put them up for a vote.
- Audience members vote for the question they’re most curious about.
- Newsroom answers the winning question (sometimes with the help and participation of the audience).
One example of a recent story from the Pacific Northwest that used this approach is from KUOW Public Radio in Puget Sound, Washington.
Further south, several San Francisco news providers answered listeners’ questions about homelessness at Bay Area radio station KQED (whose popular series Bay Curious runs entirely off audience questions) as part of a wider week of coordinated coverage on this topic.
Mayer outlined in a recent Medium post the potential benefits for both journalists and audiences of Hearken’s approach (see the image).
Leveraging Digital-First to Improve Output on Analogue Media
In the digital age, few daily newspapers hold back their reporting — except perhaps a major scoop — for their print editions. As Lou Brancaccio, editor emeritus of the Vancouver Columbian (Washington) explains, news providers can no longer afford to be second:
The worst thing that can happen to a newspaper is that somebody reads some news from their Facebook friend, they go to the Columbian website to see if we have it, and we don’t have it.
Now we have it, but we have it in a reporter’s head, and he is waiting to finish his story completely before he puts it up online. And that’s too late.
It’s a losing battle to think that you are the only one with news. That’s old-school thinking. That’s thinking from 30 years ago that we’re the only ones with this news, because the odds are somebody else has it, and if you don’t get it up first somebody else will.
As a result, Brancaccio and many other editors are urging reporters to publish the bare bones of the story online and then flesh it out as they go.
In addition to avoiding the appearance of being late to a story, there’s a further journalistic benefit to harnessing this tactic. Brancaccio notes how “people will comment on that story [online] before it ever gets into our print edition the next morning, and we will sometimes use those comments in our print story for the next morning.”
This approach not only shows audiences that their comments are valued and an important part of the engagement/feedback loop, but it also enables the print publication to benefit from additional insights and opinions provided by their online audience.
4. Face-to-Face Engagement
The impacts that journalists and news outlets can see from digital and traditional forms of engagement can include deepening relationships, generating leads, and helping to promote news literacy. These goals are, arguably, even more likely if that engagement includes opportunities for face-to-face engagement.
Interaction That Can Help Promote Media Literacy
Caitlyn May, editor of the Cottage Grove Sentinel (Oregon), hosts a weekly open table at the local bakery dubbed “Coffee with the Editor.”
“Members of the community are invited to come chat about anything and everything on their minds,” May says, “whether they have questions or complaints about a story, tips for a new one, or just want to ask me about myself: my political leanings, personal beliefs, or how I came to be in their community.”
In some instances, folks who have routinely attended Coffee with the Editor will venture a question about a national issue or story they read in a legacy publication, and we get to discuss why that story was or (in some cases) was not accurate.
Organizations like Hearken have also advocated for approaches that can achieve similar end goals. For example, they have suggested having a member of the community “buddy up” with a reporter on a story, from inception to publication. This approach can help achieve wider media literacy goals while supporting efforts to reach and engage with underserved communities,
Facilitating Engagement by Stealth
At the Vancouver Columbian (Washington), Brancaccio took a slightly different approach. In 2013, the Columbian introduced a limited run of first-edition “Don’t Do Stupid Stuff” coffee cups — a phrase that peppers Brancaccio’s Press Talk column. They sold out in just over four hours.
Jump forward four years, and the Columbia is still selling the mugs, with a steep discount if you pop by the paper to purchase them ($10 as opposed to $18 if you order online).
As Brancaccio admits, the mugs created a novel means for direct interaction with readers. They were a source of discussion with, and visits from, people he otherwise might not have had the opportunity to talk to.
The Power of Events
As we will see in the next section, events are, in some cases, part of the revenue strategy for many news organizations. But their usefulness goes beyond this.
To fully maximize this potential, outlets need to consider the benefits of partnering with other organizations, suggests Sharon Chan of the Seattle Times. Nongovernmental organizations and other trusted community partners can play an integral role in broadening the scope of attendees, so that participation goes beyond most outlets’ core audiences.
Reflecting on events hosted by Education Lab, Chan says, “We could run ads, giant full-page ads, all day long in the Seattle Times newspaper. There’s no guarantee that we actually get the people we want from the education community at an event.”
Events are a great example of journalists getting out of the newsroom to directly engage with audiences and communities. The event itself can be a story, and it can also be a great source for many other leads.
Moreover, events can also help build — and change — brand perception while creating an opportunity to discover new stories and leads and providing a means for members of the public to talk directly to journalists about their work and the decisions behind it.
Willamette Week is a local outlet that has identified (intentionally or otherwise) another potential benefit from public events. The Portland-based alt-weekly hosts public affairs events, such as “Candidates Gone Wild,” which their editor, Mark Zusman, describes as “not your father’s political debate.”
“We do it in a club, and we serve beer, and the candidates stand up on stage,” he says. “Among other things, they have to show a talent. And we charge money for that.”
Events such as this can change perceptions of local politicians and journalists alike.
5. Engagement and Innovation on Emerging Platforms
News providers are also using digital tools as a means to try to strengthen relationships with audiences. Technology allows for both deeper engagement with content and new opportunities for direct engagement with local journalists.
Examples of innovations being explored in this space across the region include live video, augmented reality, and interactive content.
The Mainstreaming of Live Video
Launched initially for celebrities in August 2015 and then opened to everyone in April 2016, Facebook Live — as well as other live video streaming platforms — is just one way that local media outlets are trying to encourage new forms of engagement.
“Hangouts were never like a huge hit,” reflects the Seattle Times’ Sharon Chan.
On average, around 100 people would participate in these conversations. Part of the challenge with this platform, Chan suggests, is that “hangout technology was just not that popular with the general public.”
In contrast, she notes, “When we did live chats, like text live chats, we’d get hundreds or, depending on the topic, up to 1,000 people.”
This suggests the importance of using mainstream platforms that your audience uses, not just those popular with journalists.
This principle may be one reason why Facebook Live has enjoyed some success for local media outlets. Users are more comfortable using Facebook than Google Hangouts, and take-up of Facebook Live may also have been aided by the wider usage of smartphones — and the continued popularity of Facebook — at the time the technology was released.
As Levi Pulkkinen, senior editor at Seattle P-I (Washington), suggests, this is all part of the continued need for news providers and journalists to engage with audiences where they are.
“We’ll go find readers wherever we can,” he says. “I mean, that’s the big change in the industry, right?
“It used to be you just print a newspaper. And whatever you had, you just kind of force it on your customers. And now what you’ve got to do is you’ve got to hang out what you’ve got and hope that you can lure them to you.”
In terms of live video, for some smaller publishers, such as the Vancouver Columbian (Washington), it’s too early to tell if this technology is a potential game changer. Emeritus Editor Brancaccio admits that, although the Columbian has used live video, “the numbers don’t look great.”
“But you know, it’s just an emerging concept,” he adds.
That’s a maxim many local publishers in the region are also using for emerging platforms such as AR as well.
Klamath Falls (population 43,000), the county seat for Klamath County (population 68,000), may not seem like an obvious place for experimentation with this emerging format. But according to Gerry O’Brien, managing editor of the Herald and News, “It’s a way to get people to kind of look at our paper in a different angle.”
These efforts began in 2015 when the town hosted the Babe Ruth Little League World Series, featuring baseball players aged 16–18 battling it out for the best team in that age group.
As O’Brien recalls, a partnership with the local college was integral to making this work.
“They came to us and said, ‘You know, we’re experimenting with this. How might it work for you guys?’ And so we jumped on board for that right away.”
“I think it’s a learning curve for the audience,” O’Brien admits. “It’s not like it gets a lot of attraction, but right now we’re trying to do an AR piece once a week in the paper, so people kind of get used to seeing it and experiment with it.”
Klamath Falls Herald and News Editor Gerry O’Brien explains how their first AR effort worked:
“We took photos of the teams, and the augmented reality kids took that photo, and each individual player then, it was embedded in their photo. If you touched on it, it would pop up a baseball card, so you see all the stats that they had.”
Personalization and Interactive Content Focused on “The Big One”
In 2016, the New Yorker’s Kathryn Schulz won the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing for “The Really Big One,” a piece exploring the impact on the Pacific Northwest when (not if) there’s a major earthquake along the Cascadia subduction zone.
“When the next full-margin rupture happens, that region will suffer the worst natural disaster in the history of North America,” she wrote.
Commenting on the win with a piece titled “The New Yorker Wins the Pulitzer for Scaring the Shit Out of Oregonians,” Willamette Week’s Lizzy Acker — who noted that the paper had written an in-depth article on this topic in 2010 — wrote:
You know the story. It’s the one your mom forwarded to you, the precursor to the conversation about earthquake safety kits, the catalyst that finally got you to buy an extra gallon of water, which is now collecting dust in your closet. It’s the tale of what’s going to happen to us when the Cascadia subduction zone finally goes berserk.
Schulz’s article prompted much discussion among Pacific Northwesterners and considerable local media follow-up.
On the week of publication, the Oregonian hosted a “live chat” with Professor Chris Goldfinger — an expert on this scenario based at Oregon State University — and two of his PhD students. The session was moderated by Richard Read, a senior writer for the Oregonian/OregonLive, who previously covered the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami in Indonesia and Sri Lanka and the 2011 Japan tsunami.
The discussions led the paper’s Mark Friesen to create an interactive, real-time (updated every 15 mins) earthquake map for the region.
OPB (Portland, Oregon) also produced a range of content on this topic. Its Unprepared series (which continues to include the latest news on this subject) offers online audiences a range of multimedia content tagged around four key themes: The Science, The Aftermath, Survival Mode, and Prepare Now.
These online features have been accompanied by “OPB’s weekly TV news magazine exploring the ecological issues, natural wonders and outdoor recreation of the Northwest,” radio content and an hour-long TV special produced by Oregon Field Guide.
The Field Guide team “spent a year-and-a-half probing into the state of Oregon’s preparedness and found that, when it comes to bridges, schools, hospitals, building codes, and energy infrastructure, Oregon lags far behind many quake-prone regions of the country.”
Alongside these efforts, OPB’s “Aftershock” initiative — which began during a weekend Storytelling with Data build-a-thon hosted by Hack Oregon and the Agora Journalism Center at the University of Oregon — created an interactive proposition to help audiences understand what a 9.0 earthquake from the Cascadia Subduction Zone might mean for them.
By entering their Oregon zip code, web users can read a customized report that outlines the seismic risks for that location and offers recommendations for preparing for such an eventuality.
Recap and Reflections
Much like their counterparts at larger news and media organizations, many local news providers are trying to make sense of what engagement means in 2017.
“I struggle with this concept of engagement,” Les Zaitz, editor and publisher of the Malheur Enterprise (Vale, Oregon) concedes. “You know, do people want their newspaper to be their best friend?”
Zaitz’s skepticism is understandable. Some engagement activities redraw the journalist-audience dynamic, and not everyone will be comfortable (or in possession of the skills) to undertake this approach. Just as important, a lot of engagement activity can be time-consuming, with potential rewards that are hard to measure and immediately determine. This inevitably can create some tension, especially in smaller newsrooms, where resources can be particularly tight and where the demands on a small workforce can be especially acute.
However, Caitlyn May’s work at the Cottage Grove Sentinel shows that this approach need not be restricted to larger publications (the Sentinel has a reporting staff of two).
Meanwhile, the AR and 360 videos produced by the Klamath Falls Herald and News (Oregon) shows that content innovation can still happen in small newsrooms.
Nonetheless, smaller news outlets in particular need to strike a balance.
Engagement is increasingly important for local media — and other outlets — and there’s a myriad of ways you can embrace it (this chapter features 12 methods). But it’s not necessarily possible, or desirable, for every journalistic endeavor. Engagement opportunities will vary depending on the story, beat, or outlet.
While there is no one-size-fits-all approach, engagement tools and activities, when used effectively, can play a role in deepening relationships with audiences and potentially contributing to better content. In the process, they can also contribute to improving community and financial relationships. Engagement’s potential, therefore, needs to be explored.
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