Engage your readers like you mean it

Journalists and readers both strive for the best reporting possible. How can they work together to achieve it? As a first step, journalists have to extend an honest invitation.

We, as journalists, should keep in mind that for almost every story we report, there is someone out there who is closer to the event than us. Someone who knows more about the issue at hand than us, who has been thinking about it or dealing with it longer than we have. If we take our profession seriously, we connect with these people and find out what they know.

Connecting with people and inviting them to share their information is at the core of reader engagement. The question here is this: How can journalists and readers work together to achieve the best journalism possible? How can we combine the skills and knowledge of journalists with the insights of the readers?

To collaborate successfully with readers, we need to embrace the idea of extending an honest invitation to participate in the production of news. We have to really mean it when we tell people to give feedback, to send us their eyewitness reports, to spend time participating in debates. If we don’t care about the answers we get from readers, we shouldn’t ask them any questions.

We should also spend more time thinking about rewarding people for their contributions. As a reader, why should I make the effort to tell journalists what I know? For instance, why should I create an account on a news site to submit my comment, picture or video when I can also post it directly on my Facebook, tumblr or Twitter account? Ten likes or retweets by my friends will often mean more than adding another comment at the bottom of an article.

A key part of rewarding readers is to make them feel proud, to let them know that the story wouldn’t be as good without their contribution. Every reader should know that if their information is valuable, it will receive the visibility and recognition it deserves. This should apply to active members of a news community as well as to those who submit something for the first time. Welcoming them means that they might share their knowledge again in the future.

Moving toward an honest collaboration with readers also requires us to be honest about the quality and relevance of their contributions. Not every comment or piece of user generated content adds value to a story or deserves a prominent place on a news site. In fact, some don’t deserve to be published at all. It’s important for journalists to be honest about that.

If we are saying that we value equally every contribution from every reader on every topic, we are not telling the truth. Filtering is what journalists do, and most readers are grateful for this. The vast majority of them come to a news site to find a selection of the most relevant updates on a story, not to do the selecting themselves.

We should acknowledge every contribution from readers and let them know that we consider them very carefully. However, we should also make it clear from the start that our mission is to provide the best journalism possible and that we judge all sources and information according to our journalistic standards.

What does an honest invitation to readers mean in practice? It surely manifests itself in the tools and channels a newsroom uses – social media, comments, platforms for user generated content and others. That is the easy part.

More importantly, extending an honest invitation to readers has to be part of our mindset and part of our newsroom’s culture. It has to be reflected in the attitude towards readers, in the tone we adapt towards them, in a willingness to enter into a serious dialogue.

Are there other people than the usual experts who might know something about this story? How can we reach them? What do we honestly want from them? How and where do we present their contributions? How do we reward them? These questions should feature again and again in our discussions.

In the end, the mindset of extending an honest invitation to people to participate will be liberating for readers and journalists. Readers will have the opportunity to be part of news production and receive the recognition they deserve. Journalists can involve them if they feel it’s valuable to do so.

The message should always be: We are all interested in the best journalism possible, so how can we work together to produce it?

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