ProPublica’s Scott Klein and Terry Parris Jr. on audience engagement

Investigative journalists have a special and crucial relationship with their audience. Often its their readers that can break new developments in a story, lead reporters in the right direction, and provide insightful feedback. That’s why at ProPublica, one of the leading sources for investigative reporting in the US, audience engagement is taken very seriously.

I recently had the chance to speak with ProPublica’s Assistant Managing Editor, Scott Klein, and Community Editor Terry Parris Jr. on how they value audience feedback, and the different tools they use to take such information into account when it comes to their reporting.

Scott Klein, Assistant Managing Editor at ProPublica
Terry Parris Jr, Community Manager at ProPublica

See the full interview below.

  1. How do you get feedback from your readers? Comments sections? Etc?

We get feedback from our readers in many ways. We’ve got comments on stories and we are active in the typical social channels, but one of the more interesting tools we use is ScreenDoor which gives us much more fine-grained control over our online forms and helps us pull our readers into our work in a structured, easy-to-manage way. Email is also an invaluable tool for us. As Screendoor collects the submissions to our online forms, we have the ability to communicate directly with respondents via email. Through this, we are able to share relevant stories and provide resources on that topic, or bulk message them for further help, tips, ideas. This helps us create a long-term — and useful — relationship between the community member and the reporter/org.

2) Is audience engagement a crucial part of ProPublica’s work? How important is audience participation in investigative journalism?

Audience engagement is absolutely crucial. As a nonprofit organization whose mission is to have real-world impact through our work, it’s even more vital than usual that we understand our readers and their needs, and how well we’re making a connection with them.

3) What are some of the tools you use to measure audience engagement?

Measuring audience engagement is a kaleidoscope of tools and methods. Measuring social engagement can be pretty straightforward. We use Twitter analytics to see what tweets and topics resonate. On Facebook, we use Facebook insights to see which posts our readers gravitate to, which ones have the farthest reach, shared the most, etc. We also useCrowdTangle to identify and monitor conversations and community on Facebook outside of our own social accounts. If we have a form for a crowdsourcing project, we’ll look at Screendoor submissions to gauge how well the survey is doing. If you look at our Get Involved page, you’ll see a number of audience engagement projects and how we measure each of those. Above all, however, we’re not driven specifically by the amount of retweets or how many comments a story gets, as much as we want to provide a high-quality experience and a clear path for a community to participate, contribute or lead our journalism. It’s not the biggest audience so much as it’s the right audience — and there will always be different ways of measuring that.

4) What are some of the most read pieces on your site? Has having this information changed the way you go about choosing future stories to investigate?

Our most read story is a story about the Red Cross’s failures in Haiti, called “How the Red Cross Raised Half a Billion Dollars for Haiti and Built Six Homes.” But the majority of the page views come to the interactive database features we make, for example our Dollars for Docs database, which has had almost 12 million page views since it launched. But as a charitable non-profit we don’t see traffic as directly connected to our revenue. What matters most to our financial sustainability is that we fulfill our mission to have real-world impact. These things aren’t mutually exclusive, but it’s not a direct correlation either. For instance, we published a story about a corporation’s plan to divert money from the health insurance fund for retired coal miners to pay its lawyers. A week later, the plan was abandoned. The story did not get a huge amount of traffic but we still consider it a huge success. People cheered in the newsroom.