Towards a useful typology of engaged journalism

What does engaged journalism mean to journalists? What are the common practices that can be thought of as engaged journalism? Why are journalists practicing engaged journalism, and how do journalists know if these practices are making a difference?

What is engaged journalism?

These are just some of the questions journalists and funders are mulling over. We — the News Integrity Initiative and Impact Architects — attempted to surface some answers with respect to these questions with a survey administered among journalists in August and September 2018. The survey results, when taken together with results from a survey conducted by Hearken and research done by EJC, provide insights into the what, the why, the who, and the how of engaged journalism.

The what

There is no one agreed upon definition of engaged journalism or its practices. However, in our survey, we found that common categories emerged. In general, engaged journalism practices include:

  • Listening to audiences;
  • Collaborating with audiences;
  • Connecting with communities; and
  • Audiences interacting with and through content.

The first three categories center on journalistic practices that are (at least perceived to be) different from more traditional journalistic practice. The fourth category puts the audience at the center and considers how audience members engage with content. This distinction belies the linguistic challenges with the word “engage,” as media consider engagement metrics to be those associated with audience digital behavior, but “engaged journalism” typically refers to new journalistic practices.

As a first attempt to create a definition of engaged journalism, we suggest:

Engaged journalism is an inclusive practice that prioritizes the information needs and wants of the community members it serves, creates collaborative space for the audience in all aspects of the journalistic process, and is dedicated to building and preserving trusting relationships between journalists and the public.

There are many examples of engaged journalism practices, some using digital tools like Hearken or social network platforms, others using SMS platforms like GroundSource or Amplify, and still others that use in-person events. When we asked journalists what engagement practices they use regularly, meaning more than twice in the last twelve months, well over half said they do the following:

  • Stories and/or investigations that are driven by contributions from the audiences.
  • Collaboration with community organizations.
  • Collaboration with other journalism organizations.
  • Creative storytelling, digital.

The why

In our survey, journalists said that they practice engaged journalism (EJ) for many reasons, but especially to build trust, understand and meet information needs, and generate revenue (through memberships, subscriptions, and/or philanthropic support). However, there are not commonly used indicators for understanding “success” of EJ, and those indicators that are used don’t necessarily answer the questions that we all share. For example, most survey respondents said they practice EJ to build trust with their audiences, but the indicators they use to measure success are advertising reach metrics.

Having quality indicators and research methods to understand the effects and value of EJ is critical for demonstrating it’s value internally in organizations, externally to audiences, and for generating revenue based on something beyond reach. In European Journalism Center’s research, they heard “I need hard evidence to prove that engaged journalism works. There is little data from Europe about whether the organisations that focus on community engagement are more sustainable in the long run. Academic research exists about the links between user participation and financial resilience, but it’s not easy to find or understand.”

Hearken has published case studies about how their clients are using the Hearken plugin as a way to build audience trust and, ultimately, generate revenue. But there is opportunity for more shared learning in this space. Commercial media, in particular, treat revenue information as proprietary, refusing to share data and insights about the relationship between their engaged journalism practices and revenue. One organization told EJC, “I don’t know where to start when it comes to resilience or sustainability. Marketing messaging, pricing strategies, membership growth, and subscriber benefits were all brought up as things the news organisations would like to learn about.”

The who

Nearly two-thirds of survey respondents said that their organizations employ engagement specialists, meaning someone with “engagement” in their title. But less than half of respondents think that the majority of the editorial staff at their organizations would say their company practices engaged journalism. These results, taken together with Hearken and EJC’s research, among other projects, confirm that engagement work is often divorced from the everyday workflows and systems of editorial teams.

Some respondents also said that reporters — those without engagement in their titles — are sometimes using engagement practices like deep listening and using audience questions and requests to help drive reporting to guide their journalism. However, reporters might not consider this to be “engagement,” but just good journalism. This confusion further suggests that the lack of shared understanding about what engaged journalism is, why it’s important, and how it’s done is a key barrier to further adoption.

The how

Our survey results and Hearken and EJC’s research all find that many journalists and newsroom leaders say they would like to experiment more with engaged journalism, but that they don’t know how and they don’t have the flexibility to take risks.

More than three-quarters (79%) of survey respondents said that lack of financial resources is the main reason they don’t practice engaged journalism more regularly. The other top challenge to these practices was expertise or know-how in EJ practices. Leadership and staff resistance were actually the least commonly cited reasons that reporters don’t practice EJ (21% each).

Opportunities

For those of us that believe the future of journalism depends upon engaged journalism continuing to spread and become core to journalistic practice, things are looking up. Researchers across the US and the world find that journalists are frequently employing EJ practices and have interest in doing more of this work.

There are four key opportunities

  1. Common language.

We need a shared understanding of engaged journalism, the practices of EJ, and ways for measuring success. We suggest one working definition for engaged journalism here, and ask for feedback to refine the language. We’ll also be working together with Gather, IL Humanities, and others at the People Powered Publishing Conference in November to continue to develop a typology of engaged journalism practices.

2. Meaningful (shared) metrics.

The practices journalists told us they consider to be engagement are, in many ways, just extensions of good, old-fashioned journalism, with some 21st century reality checks. But the old advertising metrics the industry still relies upon, those that tell us the total reach of any piece of content, don’t help us answer our questions about how these practices are meeting communities’ information needs, building trust-based relationships, and contributing to organizational sustainability. If, as an industry, we can identify key metrics to assess the effectiveness of our engagement work and inform ongoing strategy development, and we can share these findings across the network, we’ll all do better, and faster.

3. Training and resources for EJ practices.

Using the common language and typology of EJ practices, organizations like European Journalism Centre, Gather, and Free Press, among others, should continue to produce training curriculum and resources for journalists and organizations. These resources can help build individuals’ and organizations’ capacity, helping to overcome the barriers of time, resources, and skills that journalists say prevent them from doing this type of work. And funders have the opportunity to support this work by providing the resources — whether financial, trainings, networking, or otherwise.

4. Research and shared learning about what works.

Organizations like EJC, Gather, API, and others should continue to conduct research and share learnings with the field. Additionally, organizations should share their own learnings — especially with respect to the relationship between EJ and organizational sustainability — to lift up the field. Shared learnings reduce risk for increased adoption of EJ practices and push the field forward faster, together.

What now?

The Democracy Fund’s Local News Lab, Dodge Foundation’s Informed Communities work, the Lenfest Institute’s Community Listening and Engagement Fund, and the News Integrity Initiative at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York are but a few examples of philanthropic initiatives to support organizations that practice engaged journalism, offer capacity building and training, and conduct research about best practices in engagement. However, given the economic challenges facing nonprofit and commercial media alike, additional philanthropic support in the space has the potential to spur innovation, experimentation, and learning.

And, as organizations learn, they must continue to share best practices and insights. Through convenings like the People Powered Publishing Conference (PPPC) in November, journalism networks like Gather, and in industry publications, transparently sharing what you’re learning about the value of engaged journalism, and its potential challenges, will help to move the field. Competition and proprietary information were luxuries of a time past; our new reality requires that we collaborate and cooperate in pursuit of a collective good — the field of journalism and its role in our shared democracy.

As we continue to work on honing the definition of engaged journalism and identifying best practices, especially in the lead up to PPPC in Chicago, we invite you to share your ideas, questions, and feedback with us: lindsay@theimpactarchitects.com.