One of the greatest crises facing news organizations — well, besides disrupted business models, unlimited competition, and eroding trust — is engagement. The indications are pitiful: News accounts for only 6.7 percent of site visits on the internet, 1.3 percent of time spent, and 0.9 percent of pages viewed, according to the newspaper trade association WAN/IFRA. In 2012, the group said, digital engagement was 5 percent of print’s — is it a coincidence that digital revenues were also 5 percent of those in print? At CUNY, our research on new business models for news found that news sites typically garnered a dozen pageviews per user per month. Facebook gets that much engagement from members every day. Consider, too, that when The New York Times put up its pay meter, it allowed 20 free pageviews per month but then dropped that number by half to increase the number of people who would even see a demand for pay. Those readers — a fraction of the total — are considered “loyal.” Thus the vast majority of Times readers see fewer than 10 pages per month — and that is for the best journalism has to offer.
Mind you, these are the most superficial of measurements of engagement: how many people are merely looking at a page of content that we create, and how long they spend doing so. Reach, frequency, unique users, pageviews, shares, likes, attention — these are all measures centered on us and our product, content, rather than on the people we serve. In mass-media economics, more is always better: more people coming more often to spend more time on our content. Pew’s Andrew Kohut has worried — as I just have — about declining time spent with news, particularly among young people. “Younger generations just don’t enjoy following news,” he wrote. But as I thought about his complaint, I started to wonder whether less time spent with news is necessarily a bad thing. Perhaps young people are more efficient in getting the news they need than their elders, who still stare at TV screens for an hour to get a few minutes’ worth of information. In any event, our old definitions of engagement are insufficient. There are now so many better and richer means of engaging with those we serve in our communities. Let us consider a range of possibilities.
Acquaintance: Start with just knowing someone or knowing something about him or her. Return to the earlier discussion of small data: Is there sufficient trust and good reason for a person to identify herself — who she is, where she lives, where she works, what she likes to do, what her interests are, whether she has children, and so on? Nevermind how many “unique users” you have. How many people do you know? How many reasons have you given them to reveal themselves? How do you serve them better as a result?
Discussion. After unique users and pageviews, comments are the next most flawed measure of engagement. The problem with bragging about how many comments a forum or an article draws is that too often, a few people are responsible for the vast majority of comments, flooding out the views of others and setting the tone — often uncivil to abysmal — for discussion. Look at a particularly hot thread on Huffington Post or the Guardian’s Comment is Free: hundreds, even thousands of comments are impossible to read, so what does it accomplish? One could argue that hundreds of people cared enough to have their say and the news organization gave them that opportunity. But the commenters may indicate little about the larger public. And besides, in gauging the worth of both conversation and engagement, it’s value we should be seeking — intelligence, reasoned debate, contributions of information and expertise — and not mere volume, in either sense of the word.
When the Guardian started its opinion site Comment is Free, it — like other news organizations — was overwhelmed with the nastiness of much of the discourse. Editors quickly learned that more resources had to be devoted to policing the trolls, killing off-topic and rude comments, banning comments around some inevitably fiery topics (namely the Middle East), and generally cleaning up the neighborhood. In the early days of commenting, I witnessed a misplaced expectation for what comment should be. Journalists expected an online publication to exhibit the same standards as their print product, where every word had worth, where facts were verified, where incivility — without at least the fig leaf of British irony — would be unacceptable. But our first mistake was to see the internet as a medium and what appears there as content. No, the net is a place, a street corner or a bar where oftentimes people are just talking amongst themselves. That has value: to hear the public speak, to understand what people are thinking, to be open, to enable connections. And so comments are worthwhile. But comments are not the end-game of engagement. Indeed, the structure of comments is essentially flawed. The form itself says that we don’t want to hear from the public until after we are finished with our work, and then we will deign to allow them to say something — but by then, we’ve left the office and we’re not listening. Comments are a lower form of interactivity and engagement. There is is a higher form:
Collaboration: Working with the public to accomplish something of worth clearly has greater value than mere blather. It also holds the community-as-collaborators in higher esteem. One common form of collaboration is crowdsourcing, which can accomplish good things but can itself be condescending, involving the public in the process of reporting already underway to accomplish goals we journalists have already decided upon, without the opportunity to hear the needs, desires, and ideas of our collaborators.
The goal — for a news organization or even a product manufacturer — should be to move the public up the production chain from purchase and consumption to design and even conceptualization. A tech company does that when it releases a product as a beta — confessing its imperfection and thus asking for users’ help. Quirky.com, which makes and sells neat gadgets, not only solicits inventions from the public but relies on the public to help decide which products to make and also to improve design as well as branding and marketing. A new car company called Local Motors collaboratively designs cars, involving customers at every step using a smart system to reward the truly engaged, but also requiring the CEO to assure that the end product will be safe and economical. Collaborating in an enterprise of Google’s scale or in the manufacture of physical products is more complex than joining together to comb through documents or share high-school game scores for news organizations, wouldn’t you say?
Membership: News organizations, blogs, and technology companies are members of an ecosystem of information in their communities. They are also members of the communities themselves. They each have a say in the community and in being informed about it. Shouldn’t members of the community have a stake in deciding how journalistic resources are being used? Shouldn’t they have a voice in discussing the priorities governing the work of a news organization?
When we hear the word “membership” in the U.S., it tends to be in the context of supporting public radio or television. Membership is an appealing concept. It allows individuals to stand up and support a media entity with a not-for-profit mission — albeit one that is also still supported by underwriters (read: sponsors) who buy commercials. But what privileges of membership do these loyal viewers and listeners really get, past the tote bag?
Alan Rusbridger, editor-in-chief of the Guardian, has been fascinated with the idea of membership in news. He aspires to the model of the Barcelona football team (and Green Bay Packers), where fans are members and members are co-owners who have a voice in key team decisions. Would we in news be willing to lose some power and control over our scarce resources and ask: “Hi, I’m Sally. I’m your journalist. What should I cover today?” We’ve seen baby steps in that direction: a newspaper streams the news meeting over the net or lists three stories and asks which should appear on the front page. One small news site lets users change the headline over a story, to one of three editor-approved versions. Gawker Media founder Nick Denton goes the farthest, as is his habit, blurring the line between writer and reader. He allows readers to rewrite headlines and ledes on his Kinja conversation service. Much of this still smacks of collaboration as exemplified by a children’s science museum: “Here, kids, are the buttons you can punch that will appear to do something, but nothing harmless and nothing of lasting impact will result.”
What would it mean for members of the community to be truly engaged in news? At the high end of collaboration, a news organization and its journalists could stand ready to complete the assignments conjured up by a community: “We need to know this,” the community says, “and we want you to use your power as a convener to bring us together to gather this information and then to add journalistic value to that work.” True, the community could organize its own task through, say, Facebook or Twitter. But the news organization can help by convening the work, by instructing people how to meet their goal, by verifying facts, by adding context and explanation, and by offering organization.
What does a member give to become a member? Membership is seen by some as just another word for subscription: Give us your money and we will give you access to see our content. It’s another way to say “customer.” A member might well give money to support a journalistic endeavor but a true member will likely want some voice in return. Of course, a journalist will want to make sure that she is not co-opted by her patron’s funds. Journalists should also see that members can contribute value in ways other than money: giving ideas, tips, content, promotion, effort. Membership requires an exchange of value, with each side of the transaction giving something to get something.
There is one other way to look at membership, one that does not put the news organization at the egocentric middle of the Venn diagram but at the edge: The community already exists and the news organization is just another member of it, contributing value to receive value. When I spent time working with editors and executives of the Telegraph of London, they saw clearly that they served tribes — their word — of people with shared interests: conservatives, yes, and also travelers and gardeners and people interested in arts or education or history. They properly asked how they could help those pre-existing communities do what they want to do (quoth the Zuckerberg) by providing not just reporting and content but also platforms for them to share what they know or get together or buy things. Membership is not just a tollbooth. It is a two-way street.