Layton E. Williams
Apr 3 · 5 min read

Journalism has changed rapidly in recent years, from the rise of digital media, to the infamous pivot to video, to the ever-growing influence of social media platforms and their algorithms. One change, in the midst of all of these other shifts, has been an increasing emphasis on audience engagement.

What started in many newsrooms as recognition that social media management was a job in itself has grown into an entire area of expertise. Audience Engagement roles are sometimes housed in the editorial department of publications, and other times in sales and marketing, depending on the newsroom’s specific goals. But regardless, it’s a role that is increasingly recognized as a crucial component of effective journalism.

Some large publications, like The Atlantic and Washington Post, have entire departments and teams dedicated to audience engagement. But most smaller newsrooms often only have one dedicated audience person, if any. I should know. Prior to joining Hearken, I worked for two and a half years as a one-woman audience engagement department. I was embedded in the web team of a faith-based magazine, website, and advocacy organization, but I had engagement deliverables and responsibilities across the entire organization. It was a job.

I was lucky to have a supportive boss (our head web editor) and a collaborative team. We worked together to brainstorm strategy on everything from written content to multimedia to engagement, but ultimately I was the only one whose official top priority was our audience.

Given that I started that job a month before the 2016 presidential election, I spent a lot of time in the couple of years that followed responding to Facebook posts and in-person rants from friends, reminding them that “the media” is not a disembodied evil entity out to destroy the world. And in my work life, I spent a fair amount of my time reminding my colleagues that our audience — even our critics — weren’t the enemy either, or an obstacle to be overcome, or even just consumers to be fed (In fact, engaging with your publication’s skeptics can make you stronger. My teammate at Hearken wrote about that!).

Most of the reporters and editors I’ve worked with or have known believe deeply in good, effective storytelling and ethically conveying both facts and truth to their communities. But historically, the work has been viewed as a service journalists provided to the people. It’s a paradigm shift to recognize one’s audience as key partners in that work — to see engagement as not just metrics and deliverables but as a relationship to be cultivated. And if it’s your job to shepherd this knew paradigm into being at your newsroom, it can feel a little overwhelming.

So, if you are your newsroom’s sole engagement evangelist — solidarity, friend. You are not alone even if it feels like it some days. Here are a few tips gleaned from my own experience and Hearken’s wisdom from working with lots of brave, solo engagement evangelists to help get you through and remind you that your work is essential.

1. Find your common ground:

I think there is a fear among some editors and reporters that audience engagement folks’ priorities will hinder their reporting work, whether that’s by squashing stories that won’t “perform well,” or forcing them to publish clickbait headlines, or over-prioritizing metrics. But really, audience engagement is about helping editors and reporters more effectively tell stories that matter to their audiences, and then helping to make sure those stories reach the people that need them. You are working toward the same goal. And for the record, doing that work well has been shown to yield increases in subscriptions and traffic and all the measurables that matter to the folks on the business side too. Good audience engagement makes for more successful journalism — and isn’t that what we all want?

2) Listen first:

One of Hearken’s core tenets (which I also found to be true in my own time as a sole engagement evangelist) is that good engagement isn’t exclusively reactive. The best time to involve your audience isn’t after a story has been written, but before the stories even get decided. By giving your audience space to communicate the stories and issues that matter most to them and to communicate their questions, you help better that your publication is producing journalism that the audience will find meaningful for their own lives and their communities. And if the audience knows that they are being listened to in that way, they’ll keep coming back. Meanwhile, reporters and editors get to know that the hard work they’re doing has a tangible impact.

3) Tell the truths:

I often hear people wax nostalgic about the good old days of tried and true journalism, when it was simple, straightforward, and “just the facts, ma’am.” I get it — swimming through the punditry and biases for reliable information can be exhausting. But I also always point out that there has never been only “one truth,” and when journalism only seemed to tell one story, it was because a whole lot of other stories and voices were going unheard. Engaging with your audience as partners in your storytelling provides a pathway to lift up the multitude of stories, experiences, and truths that make up your audience. Moreover, listening to a wide range of voices better positions you to serve the complex and diverse information needs of your whole audience, providing truthful stories that are relevant to a broader array of people. Good journalism isn’t just about telling the truth. It’s about knowing there are many truths that deserve to be heard.

4) Don’t go it alone:

It can be so hard and, frankly, lonely to be the only dedicated audience person in your newsroom. You face struggles that no one else on your staff can fully understand or even imagine. Finding a community of other audience engagement colleagues to learn from was crucial to my job satisfaction and my professional development. And because I was constantly learning from other engagement journalists in different contexts, with different levels of experience, my finding an engagement community actually benefited my entire organization. Luckily, Hearken has officially launched its own membership program — a community of engagement innovators to share their best practices and their struggles. And we’ll be sharing all the wisdom we’ve gleaned from working with over 150 newsrooms, too.

Audience engagement is hard work, but it’s also so important. Keep helping your staff to see your audience as partners, keep listening, keep looking for all the truths, and don’t go it alone — because you don’t have to. Join us and be a part of our new community. We have things to learn from you too.

We Are Hearken

The Hearken team's thoughts on journalism, engagement, and tech. Hearken means: to listen. We believe that listening to your audience first, not last, makes for better everything. We're here to help:

Layton E. Williams

Written by

Engagement Strategist and Industry Education Lead at Hearken. Writer and pastor elsewhere.

We Are Hearken

The Hearken team's thoughts on journalism, engagement, and tech. Hearken means: to listen. We believe that listening to your audience first, not last, makes for better everything. We're here to help:

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