Is engaging with readers the key to both trust and revenue?

Note: This was originally published as the daily newsletter for the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

As more media companies move towards subscription and membership-based models to try to generate additional revenue, engaging with the people formerly known as the audience has become much more important. And yet, some media companies and journalists still seem uncomfortable with this concept. How important is community building and engagement, and how should journalists and media outlets approach this task? What are the best practices? How do community or engagement-focused staffers make the case that it matters and resources should be devoted to it? These are some of the questions we asked a group of experts and practitioners during a week-long series of interviews on our Galley discussion platform. We spoke with people like Techdirt founder Mike Masnick, Ariel Zirulnick of the Membership Puzzle Project, Christine Schmidt of the Nieman Lab, Summer Fields of Hearken, Hanna Ingber of the New York Times‘ Reader Center, and Joy Mayer of Trusting News. All of those conversations and more are available here:

Masnick, who said he started Techdirt with a focus on community from the beginning when it was a one-man blog, said that he feels the fundamental mistake many in the news business make is “not realizing it’s always been a community building business.” Historically, much of that community was based on a geographic area, or possibly specific topics or interests, Masnick says, but “many structured their businesses in a way that let them pretend the news” was the business, rather than a means to building a community.” Summer Fields said one thing Hearken does is to demonstrate the
connection between engagement and revenue. “We’ve seen that the more your audience sees you are valuing them, the more likely they are to trust you as well as support you, either financially, or with their time,” she says. Simon Galperin of GroundSource — which offers media companies a text-messaging platform for connecting with their readers or audience — said that research shows engaged audiences are three times as likely to become donors.

Joy Mayer of Trusting News said at a time when trust in journalism is extremely low, and many readers are suspicious about bias, engaging with them is often the best way to convince them you deserve their trust. “We work with newsrooms on ways to draw attention to their own mission, motivations, processes and ethics. If you work to be fair, what does that look like?” Mayer says. “It’s natural for the public to be confused, overwhelmed and frustrated by what they see journalists do. But if journalists believe in their own work, they need to take the time to explain why.” Najva Sol of Quartz says
the biggest change the company has seen in engagement came from revamping the site’s comment section. “We knew that creating a civil community experience requires a culture change,” she says. So the site did a number of things, including shifting its terminology from commenting to “contributing,” writing community behavior agreements and reaching out to experts in the Quartz reader community.

Lauren Katz of Vox Media said the company has used crowdsourcing projects to report on a number of investigative stories, including one about health-care costs that involved asking readers for their personal experiences — something that led to more than 2,000 submissions. In such cases, framing the project as a community-building tool makes a big difference, Katz says. “It’s not just that we want them to tell us the thing and then never talk to them again. It’s an invitation to be part of an on-going conversation.” It’s important to think about what happens after the project is finished, she says. “How will you close the feedback loops? We learned that setting these goals from the beginning is key to a successful, meaningful outcome.” Crowdsourcing can be as simple as asking a question, says Fiona Morgan. One example is Outlier Media in Detroit, which reached out to readers via text message to ask if they had real estate questions, and then responded — and in the process learned about broader patterns in the housing market.

Other media outlets see engagement as an ongoing series of social events that serve as a form of outreach, says Christine Schmidt, who is leaving the Nieman Lab soon to join Pierre Omidyar’s Democracy Fund. The Dallas Morning News and Block Club Chicago regularly hold office hours in libraries and coffee shops in various neighborhoods to meet with people who may not be subscribers, she says, and the Morning News also recently hosted a bus tour of Dallas with one of its columnists, something he started doing as a way of helping new interns at the paper. “I see engagement as all about making sure people feel heard and included (and of course, actually listening to and including them),” says Schmidt. And if they feel listened to and included, then maybe they will be more likely to get out their checkbook.

Here’s more on engagement, trust, and journalism:

Part of the newsroom: Hanna Ingber, editorial director of the New York Times‘ Reader Center, said in her Galley interview that the paper doesn’t see the center as a replacement for the public editor, a position the Times shut down in 2017. “The major difference is that the public editor sat outside the newsroom,” she says, whereas “we are part of the newsroom.” Ingber said the paper tries to use the center as a way of showing readers that they are being heard. “Sometimes we see that many readers have the same question, and it leads us to write an article or explainer on the topic.” This happened recently, Ingber says, when the Times noticed that many people were asking why a president asking another country for help ahead of an election was such a big deal. That led to an explainer written by someone in the DC bureau.

Solving the puzzle: Ariel Zirulnick of the Membership Puzzle Project said the funding she helps administer has been going to some innovative engagement projects, including the Akron Devil Strip’s conversion into a member-owned co-operative. The fund also supports the Colorado Media Project, which is exploring the idea of a state-wide media membership program that covers a number of different outlets. In Romania, the MPP is supporting a newsroom outside Bucharest that is trying to grow its member network, and in India it is helping launch a network of medical professionals who can help journalists tackle medical misinformation in the region.

Scale and community: A new paper published by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism looks at digital-first media entities and their approaches to community engagement. The research — by Julie Posetti of the Reuters Institute, Felix Simon of the Oxford Internet Institute and Nabeelah Shabbir, Conversation Editor at The Correspondent — says that in response to political attacks and “platform capture,” these news organisations are increasingly focused on forging deeper and stronger relationships with their audiences, “emphasizing physical encounters, investment in niche audiences over empty reach, and moving communities to action.”

Other notable stories:

President Donald Trump hosted a previously undisclosed dinner with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook board member Peter Thiel at the White House in October, the company told NBC News on Wednesday. The meeting took place during Zuckerberg’s most recent visit to Washington, where he testified before Congress about Facebook’s new cryptocurrency Libra, and Thiel was said to be present, but it’s not clear why the dinner was never publicized. Elizabeth Warren said on Twitter that the “secret dinner” was evidence of “corruption, plain and simple.”

The Department of Homeland Security violated the First Amendment when it allegedly tracked and interrogated five journalists between 2018 and 2019, the American Civil Liberties Union said in a lawsuit filed Wednesday.The lawsuit includes accounts by five freelance photojournalists, all of whom are US citizens and were stopped by Customs and Border Protection, an agency within DHS, while traveling to and from Mexico between November 2018 and January 2019. At the time, the journalists were documenting a group of migrants who were traveling to the US-Mexico border.

Google says it is changing its policy on political advertising so that campaigns and advertisers will no longer be able to direct ads specifically to audiences based on their public voter records or political affiliations. In a blog post, the company said it made the changes as a result of “recent concerns and debates about political advertising, and the importance of shared trust in the democratic process.” Facebook is also said to be considering restrictions on how much targeting political campaigns can do with their ads, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal.

The owner of the Skagway News, a newspaper in Alaska that was founded in 1897 during the Klondike gold rush, is offering to give the paper away to a suitable proprietor. Larry Persily, a veteran journalist who teaches at the University of Alaska in Anchorage, bought the newspaper less than a year ago, but says operating it has been more difficult than he thought it would be. The paper’s editor recently resigned, so Persily says he is now looking for someone to take over the whole operation. He welcomes emails from anyone who is interested in taking it off his hands.

Facebook promised to ban white nationalist content from its platform in March of 2019, but an investigation by the Guardian found that a number of white supremacist and racist outlets are still operating on the platform, including Red Ice TV, a website called VDare, a rebranded version of white-power activist Richard Spencer’s blog Alternative Right, a newsletter published by Willis Carto, a prominent white supremacist. Facebook told the paper it is investigating whether the pages breach its rules.

A New York Times investigation has found that a former Fox News executive hired Macedonians to write culturally and politically divisive content for a number of websites. The sites, Conservative Edition News and Liberal Edition News, publish inflammatory stories designed to inflame America’s culture wars, the paper says, and were created and are run by Ken LaCorte, the former Fox News executive who was accused of killing a story about President Trump’s affair with Stormy Daniels, the pornographic film actress, before the 2016 election.

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was formally charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust on Thursday, making him the first Israeli premier to be indicted while in office. An indictment alleges that the country’s longest-serving prime minister and his wife, Sara, accepted more than $260,000 worth of luxury goods in exchange for political favors, and that Netanyahu interceded with regulators and lawmakers on behalf of two media companies in exchange for positive news stories. Israeli writer Ruth Margalit wrote about Netanyahu’s complicated relationship with the press in a piece for CJR.

In a speech given after receiving the Anti-Defamation League’s International Leadership Award, actor and comedian Sacha Baron Cohen lashed out at tech companies like Facebook, Google, and Twitter, which he said function as “the greatest propaganda machine in history.” Cohen went on to criticize Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s recent speech at Georgetown University, saying “This is about giving people, including some of the most reprehensible people on earth, the biggest platform in history to reach a third of the planet.¬† Freedom of speech is not freedom of reach.”

The Players’ Tribune, the digital media venture launched by former New York Yankees captain Derek Jeter, is being acquired. The website, which was introduced in 2014 as a platform for athletes to tell their stories, has been acquired by Minute Media, a digital publishing platform founded in Israel that operates a network of sports-media sites around the world, the companies said. The terms of the deal weren’t disclosed.

In a new report entitled Losing the News: The Decimation of Local News and the Search for Solutions, PEN America says there is an “existential threat facing local watchdog journalism” as newspapers struggle to survive. At a time when political polarization is growing and fraudulent news is spreading, the group says “a shared baseline of facts on the issues that most directly affect Americans is more essential than ever.” Among other things, PEN recommends Congress consider either an expansion of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting or the creation of a new national endowment for journalism, funded by contributions from the major tech companies.

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