Ben Whitelaw is engagement lead of the Engaged Journalism Accelerator.
First, a quick question: How often do you think journalists meet or speak to someone that has read or has watched their work?
By that, we do not mean a friend or a supportive family member, but a reader they did not know and had never met before. Once a week? Even once a month?
That was the question I asked on Twitter recently, prompted by hefty cuts to newsrooms in the US and the knowledge that serving communities with fewer journalists is an increasingly tall order. While the replies represented a small sample of voices, the trends were clear.
Most interactions with their audience were online — via e-mail — and also reactive in nature, for example, to troubleshoot a newsletter issue.
There were a few exchanges over the course of reporting on a story and others took place face-to-face at events organised by the news organisation. One or two happened by chance outside of the office. None however were solicited or part of a dedicated, converted call-out to readers for their views on a topic.
It confirmed a worrying trend: that many news organisations do not have set ways to listen to the voices and views of their readers as an active model of feedback on their journalism.
In many cases, reporters tell stories that they think their communities should know, rather than what they know is important to the community. Occasionally they don’t care who is reading their work, as long as someone is.
There are reasons we believe this attitude persists — newsroom culture, financial pressure to publish, poor tools to gather feedback — and the EJC invites you to fill out a short survey to tell us if there are any we may have missed.
What is clear is that this transactional attitude towards readers and listeners is not working. Not only is it damaging trust, but it is undermining the opportunity publishers have to be sustainable and have an impact beyond their communities.
Hearken, a US-based audience consultancy has worked with over 100 news organisations. Its research demonstrates that people-powered stories engage readers better, on average, than other stories, for metrics including dwell time and social share — both key indicators of user satisfaction.
Not only that but these stories outperformed others for advertising revenue and conversions to subscriptions among their newsroom partners. One in particular saw a five-fold up-tick.
Of course there are more questions to answer here, but it is promising to see news organisations operate in new ways as a means to address the financial pressures they face.
Doing journalism differently
These approaches are not happening just in the US. Forward-thinking news organisations in the UK and across Europe are seeing promising results when they work with their communities to steer their editorial priorities and shape their revenue models.
The likes of Zetland in Denmark, Solomon in Greece, and Bureau Local in the UK have found success by regularly polling their communities, hosting face-to-face events and putting on collaborative reporting days.
They also host expert round tables, publish documents they have sourced for others to benefit and offer grants for their users to investigate their own stories. Their ethos can be summarised as ‘it’s not a story unless our users think it’s a story’.
This is a different form of journalism than we have come to expect: a more engaged form of journalism. And, as our recently published ‘Engaged Journalism in Europe Database’ shows, they are among over 70 news organisations from across 26 countries adopting this new way of producing journalism.
Obviously, this is not all rosy and it is not without barriers. Collaboration requires funding and co-operation. Some news organisations struggle to secure the funds needed while others tend to silo ideas and knowledge.
One consideration that has already been reflected in our survey is that experimenting is difficult to prioritise amongst the deadlines. Even when there is some spare time, it is also difficult to know where to start. That is where the Engaged Journalism Accelerator wants to help.
We want to support, connect and inspire news organisations to learn new ways of working with, and for, their communities. Our newsletter, launching in September, and regular resources will provide a blueprint, whatever size newsroom you work in.
A grants programme and a series of events across Europe will also outline best practices and show how publications can have a larger impact on their communities and on society as a whole.
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