How to get engagement buy-in from your newsroom

‘It wasn’t just me complaining, it was me proposing an alternative’: journalists share lessons from engaged election coverage

Bridget Thoreson
We Are Hearken
Published in
7 min readMar 1, 2021

You’ve seen this editor.

Leaning back, arms crossed, chin tucked down as you make your case to try engagement journalism for your next story or project. The frown. The head shake. And you can almost see the editor queuing up various ways to say “no” — “there’s no time,” “we don’t have enough people,” “I just don’t see why,” or “maybe another time.”

This is going to be a tough sell.

But it doesn’t have to be.

This was a recurring theme with the 134 journalists from 63 newsrooms who participated in the Election SOS training last year on building engagement into elections coverage — even when staff is willing, engagement work can be difficult to pursue without the support of the larger newsroom.

“We could have done a lot more if we had some more buy-in from people higher up.”

“I think I almost need more buy-in from my editors. I told them I was doing the training, but I don’t really think they were engaged in what I was doing so they weren’t invested in it.”

We are conducting interviews with 20+ of our Election SOS training participants to learn from their experiences pursuing engagement and trust-building elections coverage. We will be sharing out a complete report on how these newsrooms designed their coverage from start to finish, and what they plan next, based on these interviews. To give the most accurate and honest picture of their challenges, we are sharing those insights anonymously. The journalists quoted represent a diverse group who come from print, radio, digital and video newsrooms ranging from less than 10 to more than 100 employees, serving local to international audiences.

We’re starting today by sharing what these journalists learned about the first step for any engagement work you want to pursue — how to make the case to get support in your newsroom.

“My goal with my journalism career broadly has been to provide serviceable content, so that’s what I wanted to do for (my newsroom) with this election coverage. I think some of that was a success, because the training did help me think of different ways to do that, and give me a little push to push it in meetings as well with my editors and my colleagues to adjust it more and to try new things.”

What our cohort participants found was the secret to getting buy-in is the same approach you use when reporting a story:

  1. Get curious
  2. Make your pitch
  3. Build your beat

Here’s how you can get that editor to open up to trying something new.

Get curious

There’s a reason you want to pursue engagement work — but why should your colleagues or managers get involved? Chances are, you already have a pretty good sense of what might motivate them. Perhaps this reporter is looking to develop some new sources, or that editor wants to grow your audience in an area that your newsroom has traditionally struggled to serve.

If you don’t know why they might want to try out engagement, it’s time to simply ask. Uncovering people’s motivators is one of those skills journalists have honed their entire careers — there’s no reason you can’t put those skills to use in your own newsroom. Get curious about what people are working on, what they need and what they’re struggling with.

“Reporters were so used to finding stories by themselves, but I think that the thing that really helped spur our team’s own growth was when we started working from home and COVID hit and there were so many questions about how the disease works, what daily life is supposed to be like. Because our reporters were stuck at home, we helped provide that extra leg to find the people on the ground, not the experts that they might be tapped into already.”

Once you have a good sense of what might get people on board, it’s time to make your pitch.

Make your pitch

You wouldn’t go to your editor with a story pitch without being ready to say why it needs to be reported, so put the same prep into your proposal for engagement work. Be ready to answer questions by understanding what you want to accomplish and why it matters.

Our cohort participants designed a brief presentation — we’re talking just 5 slides — to explain:

  • Why they are proposing this engagement plan
  • Who they are trying to reach
  • Where they will go to reach them
  • What success will look like
  • When and how project tasks will be completed

“It gave us a real opportunity to build a true roadmap where I could go to my business partner who wasn’t part of the training and say, ‘This is what I think we should do.’ And he could understand that and say, ‘Let’s do it.’ (The plan helped me) imagine a real way to do this, instead of just sort of gesturing at it, because those are our values, or whatever. And then part of it enabled me to get buy-in from the team … because it was so clear that this was not a notion, there’s this whole plan.”

“We gave that presentation to so many different people. They had us present to the (organization) board, to the new (organization) board, to … our community panel, to the newsroom. We reused that in many iterations based on our audience, and I also gave the presentation to some of the community organizations that we’re partnering with just to give them a sense of what we’re about and this is what we’re trying to do with the project. So I have like 10 different versions of the PowerPoint.”

Do you have to give a full slideshow to get an initial yes? Absolutely not. But craft your pitch — find your angle — based on the needs you identified when you got curious in step 1.

You can also start with a small ask. Go to a reporter with deep sources and ask what groups they’d recommend you reach out to for this story. Then update them with the results. Once people have contributed even slightly to something you’re working on, they’re invested. You can build that investment over time into deeper support if you’ve found what works for them.

Lastly, turn to the experts. Resources (like our report!) on newsrooms that have tried engagement journalism and what they’ve accomplished make a compelling case for why you should try it at your newsroom.

“One thing for me personally that helped a lot was having this kind of institutional backing of Hearken and of a scholar like Jay Rosen, when I would go to the newsroom. Because I complained about horse race coverage all the time. I’ve been here for five years and I always complain about it, it’s what I’m known for is being a Debbie Downer about those types of stories.

“I felt like now, it wasn’t just me complaining, it was me proposing an alternative and an alternative that was backed and vetted by an institution. Everyone in our newsroom knows Hearken and respects them, and knows Jay Rosen and respects his ideas. And so it was really great to feel like I had that kind of institutional backing.”

Build your beat

Engagement is not a product or a project, but a process. Just like a beat is not built in a day, building a meaningful relationship with your audience takes time.

I’ve been told more than once by a newsroom that they had tried engagement and failed, so they weren’t going to “do” engagement anymore. And I always ask, “What did you learn?” Because it’s not a failure if you’ve learned something that you can apply to future engagement efforts.

I call it the “pizza stone of engagement” — every time you make something, you add a little more flavor and, over time, create more unique and delicious offerings.

So when it comes to engagement, treat it like a beat. Develop your sources, learn what works and what doesn’t, and give it time. Be open with the public about what you’re trying and why, and provide feedback loops so you can continue to inform your work with your audience’s input.

“One more thing we learned about engagement is that especially around elections, you need to have it be continuous. With the previous two projects, we had put a time limit: ‘OK, we’re done with those stories.’ But especially with elections, they’re so often that it’s important that once you have that base of people that are engaging with you, just continuing to engage with them and grow on that.”

“I’m pretty proud of the work that we did to try and reflect our audiences, but there is definitely more work to be done. And I think that that takes time just to continue to show people the success of this model in and outside of politics.”

You don’t need to convince that editor — the one with arms crossed, ready to bat down any idea that takes precious resources — to completely redesign the entire story workflow to include engagement. All you need is one small yes to get started, to try something new and to learn.

Sign up here to:

  1. Get early access to the Election SOS report on lessons learned on engagement and trust from the 2020 elections.
  2. Be notified about our Election SOS Summit with newsroom leaders coming up in early April.



Bridget Thoreson
We Are Hearken

Storyteller and audience advocate. Member collaborations editor at INN.