A Look At the Changing Nature of Audience Engagement


The phrase “audience engagement” is tossed around pretty loosely in the media industry but tends to mean something different to every organization.  One commonality is that it generally means big changes for what is asked of audiences and what is asked of newsroom staff. 

Here are a few examples that take a look at the changing nature of audience engagement and journalists’ roles in their organization, followed by my personal key takeaways and questions:



Example 1: The Washington Times ‘Digital-First’ Transformation

As described in this article by Betsy Rothstein on MediaBistro.com, The Washington Times editor David Jackson is laying out strategy to become ‘digital-first’ “like National Journal, Politico, The Hill, CQ Roll Call, The Atlantic, Slate, WaPo, The Daily Caller and more”.  Unfortunately, this means there’s likely to be quite a few layoffs.  But, specifically relating to audience engagement techniques for whoever retains their job, according to Rothstein, “they will use social media (we suspect this sounds like EVERYONE), they will keep in touch with what their audience likes through research (Roll Call anyone?), they will create a mobile site (yes, yes, others have done it) and finally, [Jackson’s] dramatic last few lines: ‘We will be a news organization that can be trusted to report important stories that others won’t. We will be The Washington Times 3.0.’”

Key Takeaway: Journalists who do not want to become obsolete should continue their education in areas such as coding or interactive media.  In fact, there have been some articles on this school of thought in MediaShift.  This MediaShift article, in particular, has some great points: Why Journalists Should Learn Computer Programming.  I’ve also stumbled across a few other good resources to help inspire journalists to code: How Journalists Can Learn to Code–and Why It’s Important [Poynter] and Want to Be a Reporter? Learn to Code [Gigaom].

Questions: Do you think journalists and other newsroom staff at risk of losing their jobs should be given the opportunity to train or test to qualify to retain employment prior to digital-first changes?  What skills do you think would be most valuable?



Example 2: ProPublica’s ‘Free the Files’ Campaign During 2012 Elections and PBS Newshour’s Translation Project

Around the time of the 2012 Presidential election, ProPublica established the Free the Files campaign, “enlisting our readers to help us review political ad files logged with Federal Communications Commission”.  This was done with the goal of creating an interactive tracking site for groups “that are spending millions of dollars on TV ad buys hoping to influence 2012 election”, particularly in the so-called battleground states.  Readers were encouraged to participate by clicking on green “free a file” buttons on the website to retrieve documents, then make annotations about things like ‘who bought the ad’, ‘the advertising agency placing the ad’, ‘the contract ID’, and ‘the amount of the buy’.  This idea reminds me of a similar crowdsourcing effort by PBS Newshour to get their viewers to translate videos into 52 languages (and counting).

Key Takeaway: These particular ‘crowdsourcing’ tasks sound like things that, ethically, could done by a paid employee (or a contractor, or through a pay-as-you-translate situation similar to an Elance.com model).  Yet, these organizations are asking for free labor.  Journalists should understand that not all crowdsourcing efforts are equal and some may, in-fact, be taking away chances to earn income.  However, most crowdsourcing efforts can only produce insightful results only by reaching out and asking for audience engagement.  There’s actually a crowdsourcing field guide for journalists put out by WNYC (one of New York’s public radio stations).  This specific guide is pretty comprehensive, detailing everything from tips for creating crowdsourced projects, to case studies, to actual sample plans for staff to make it happen.

Question: What should the ethical standard be for when news organizations should offer paid work opportunities to employees or freelancers and when should they ask the audience to voluntarily crowdsource?



Example 3: The Guardian’s Datablog and Crowd-sourcing

The Guardian tends to ask for crowd-sourced public evaluations through its Datablog + Crowdsourcing page rather than strictly labor-centric data sorting or translation.  For example, one particular request: “NHS [National Health Service] contracts: help us search and analyse the data … Which NHS service contracts are up for grabs as the Coalition government’s health reforms continue? … We want to know more about these deals – and the companies or organisations that win them. How are the contracts working in real life? Which organisations are winning the most and how are they performing? Click on the headings to sort the table, search or download the data.”  Journalists are then still needed to evaluate all the crowdsourced opinions that they receive.  This is a positive attribute for keeping workers busy and employed.

Key Takeaway: The Datablog + Crowdsourcing site is asking for the opinion or evaluation of particular public matters.  Public sentiment is now being seen as an extremely valuable tool for public policy development, monitoring and evaluation.  In fact, Denmark recently held a “National ‘Open Government Camp’ in September of last year (a product of the Danish Open Government Partnership Action Plan 2012).  According to the description of the event, “Danish citizens, businesses, NGOs and public authorities” were encouraged to “roll up their sleeves and set to work” to “work together to develop new ideas, to learn from each other, and to come up with cool solutions to tough challenges.”  Imagine–giving the power of intellectual entrepreneurship and problem-solving back to the people rather than solely relying on elected leadership for solutions. In fact, such models have really gained momentum across the globe leading to a long list of Gov 2.0 Open Government and Open Data events throughout 2012. (And here’s a starter list for events in 2013.)

In fact, during these events, journalists’ editorial coverage tends to focus on collaboration and many voices being heard through democratic processes, rather than the outcomes of bickering politicians.  The power of using mass communication (such as broadcast, newspaper, or digital media) to demonstrate collective transparency to populations of crowdsourced solutions can potentially revitalize trust in institutions and each other.

Questions: What crowd-sourced evaluations would be most beneficial for a community?  When and where would the crowd have more information than the experts?  Does a crowdsourced evaluation have to result in actionable information or is it just good-enough for benchmarking government performance?



Example 4: Washington Post’s Social Reader

The Washington Post’s Social Reader is “a free Facebook application that offers a new way to read news from The Washington Post and more of the Web’s best news sources — with your friends. Once you’re using the app, the stories you read will be instantly shared with your friends, and your friends’ reads will be shared with you, creating a socially powered newswire of intriguing articles.”  While this tool doesn’t really affect journalists’ roles (aside from the fact they need to come up with even more catchy headlines for each article), it can promote more clicks (aka “audience engagement”).

Key Takeaway: Facebook users who intentionally utilize the The Washington Post’s Social Reader don’t seem to mind that they are exposing their personal reading habits to several hundred (if not thousands) of their closest acquaintances.  By exposing themselves, it is mean that their hundreds of ‘friends’ will know the intimate details of which article links they decide to click on and read–which can become a little too intimate.  Others have written about this as well, with one blogger calling the app “all too creepy”, uncomfortable with “the idea that every page you open up and take a passing glance at would be tracked and shared”.  Then there is the issue of unintentional sharing of reading habits on Facebook, which has lead to articles being written with step-by-step instructions to adjust your privacy settings to disable social reader apps so it won’t continue to happen.  The trouble with this for journalists and editors is that they will be challenged, once again, with new means of measuring audience engagement and sharing.

Questions: Similar to Washington Post’s Social Reader, there are other tools that seek to share user habits.  For example, Obama recently signed a bill that will let you share your Netflix activity on Facebook.   When are tools like these useful and when do they become just plain annoying to your ‘friends’?


What are your thoughts on all this?  Am I right or wrong?  Contact me by posting in the comments section below or tweet me @BBGinnovate.


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(Thank you to Rob Bole for his contributions to this post.)

(The foregoing commentary does not constitute endorsement by the US Government, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, VOA, MBN, OCB, RFA, or RFE/RL of the information products or services discussed.)

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April Deibert

April Deibert

April Deibert is the Multimedia Blogger/Producer for the Office of Digital & Design Innovation. Follow her on Twitter: @BBGinnovate and @AprilDeibert.

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