Emily Knepple is a 2021-2022 student fellow at the Center for Journalism Ethics and a senior at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
When Ryan Thomas, an associate professor of journalism studies at the University of Missouri, asked a room full of digital news editors what it means for a story to “do well,” few gave him the answer he hoped for.
Most said that a story does well when they see a certain number of shares, likes, retweets or comments on social media. The response left Thomas feeling troubled.
“So few people in response said that a story does well in our newsroom if it brings to light corruption in city hall, or if it’s a story that addresses something around public concern, or it leads to tangible policy change,” Thomas said.
While the use of engagement metrics in newsrooms has become a mainstay of the industry in the past decade, “engagement” itself can be a polarizing word and its definition blurry.
Andrew DeVigal, the current director of the Agora Center for Journalism at the University of Oregon, says engagement is best understood in two ways: transactional and relational.
“The distinction between transactional engagement and relational is that transactional is purely data, a numbers game,” DeVigal said. “The other kind of engagement is focused on the quality; asking the questions to track and measure the effectiveness of your engagement.”
Many newsrooms focus on transactional engagement but, according to Thomas, this kind of data cannot stand alone.
“Engagement metrics are useful when supplemented with journalistic judgment,” Thomas said.
Thomas notes that the public interest, and what the public are interested in, are two different things. Public interest means treating the public as a social entity. Gauging what the public is interested in tends to treat the audience as a consumer.
Jeremy Lipschultz, the Peter Kiewit Distinguished Professor at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, finds that “people have a desire to be entertained, it dwarfs everything else that is in this noisy media space.” Because of this, “it’s challenging to get those serious stories that really impact people’s lives through that gatekeeping process,” Lipschultz said.
So what should the role of engagement be in guiding a newsroom?
Carrie Brown, the Director of the Engagement Journalism program in the Craig Newmark Graduate school of Journalism at CUNY, said developments in technology have meant that journalists no longer have a choice whether to focus on engagement.
“In the early days of the internet, the idea of whether you even knew if people were reading your story at all was kind of revolutionary,” Brown said. Now, technology tells newsrooms more than just who is reading their work, but also where, how and when.
But at first, “newsrooms had to just go through the period of realizing that paying attention to the audience at all was important and even though that was a small thing, in some ways it was good,” Brown said.
Engagement metrics began as an exciting, novel concept for newsrooms, Brown said, but over time, most newsrooms have become over-reliant on this data, and this overreliance can affect the quality of news.
“We need to be doing qualitative work to understand what kind of impact our journalism is having and whether or not it’s creating real-world outcomes and/or helping people do the things that they need to do,” Brown said.
Both Thomas and Lipschultz suggest that engagement metrics can be a strong starting point for newsrooms, that data can push newsrooms to build stories that both intrigue their audience and provide critical information.
“If we can apply ethics and use that data to do unique, high-value journalism around themes we know readers want, we all win.”Josh Awtry, Vice President of Content Strategy at the USA TODAY network
Josh Awtry, Vice President of Content Strategy at the USA TODAY network, has seen firsthand how engagement metrics can shift the landscape of a newsroom.
In his first editor role for Gannett in Fort Collins, Colorado, in 2012, Awtry and his team began studying “audience trends, page views and later, engaged time.” They used these statistics alongside “real-world forums” to pair a qualitative approach with quantitative data.
“If audience data tells us readers love coverage of ‘hot homes in the market,’ what can we do to add depth to the conversation? Can we tell enterprise stories about the high barrier to entry for today’s prospective homeowners? Look into the practices of shady landlords?” Awtry said.
Awtry eventually moved to the Gannett corporate headquarters and worked “at the junction of shoe leather journalism and mountains of audience data to figure out how to best apply all of the audience signals to improve our journalism.” There, he helped create a team that tackles these issues and aims to help journalists better understand who is reading their work.
“If we can apply ethics and use that data to do unique, high-value journalism around themes we know readers want, we all win,” Awtry said.
Julia Haslanger, newsroom analytics lead at The Philadelphia Inquirer, has spent her career working with applied data and engagement metrics. Before joining the Inquirer, Haslanger offered freelance consulting on “data and engagement needs.”
Throughout her time in the industry, Haslanger has helped newsrooms answer strategy questions, conversations that, she said, analytics can be helpful in.
“It’s about having curiosity about the assumptions you have for different stories and whether those bear out to be true,” Haslanger said.
“If you understand your metrics and you’re also building relationships, you’re letting them participate more in the news process. All of those things together, if you do it carefully and intentionally, they can combine to make something pretty powerful.”Carrie Brown, Director of the Engagement Journalism program in the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY
According to Brown, good engagement combines two different modes: audience engagement and community engagement. The former refers to things such as metrics, growth and social media, while the latter focuses on building relationships with the community and listening to them in a different way.
“If you understand your metrics and you’re also building relationships, you’re letting them participate more in the news process,” said Brown. “All of those things together, if you do it carefully and intentionally, they can combine to make something pretty powerful.”
But Brown also said in many newsrooms, audience engagement is getting practiced a lot more, and news organizations are falling short on serving and engaging with their communities. Newsrooms need leaders who embrace these concepts and allocate resources. “We are seeing that more than we used to, but there’s still some resistance,” Brown said.
DeVigal also said most engagement tracking has been transactional (likes, clicks, etc.) but the other side of engagement, what he calls the relational factor, focuses on “deepening your engagement with communities that you are covering.”
DeVigal pointed to two areas he thinks newsrooms should be paying attention to when engaging with the communities they cover: social infrastructure (i.e., how deep is your relationship with that community?) and your long-term objective (i.e., is the work you’re doing with these communities a novelty or a commitment for longevity?).
To help news media professionals who are looking to better understand and produce engagement journalism, DeVigal and Eric Gordon of the Engagement Lab at Emerson College helped create the online tool Meetr.
Meetr allows journalists and newsrooms to track their progress with the community by providing a wide variety of questions and activities. DeVigal emphasizes that this tool breeds dialogue, which is essential for community-building.
While most newsrooms do not provide the time or resources to support this kind of engagement model, DeVigal said, “More and more, we are seeing the role of community engagement director. There’s more and more of those positions in the newsroom.”
As industry leaders try to find the space for this type of journalism, there are also more resources to help them.
Gather, a platform to support community-minded journalists, is a collaborative project led by the Agora Journalism Center. Its mission is to “make journalism more responsive to the public’s needs and more inclusive of the public’s voices and diversity, by helping journalists, educators and students who share these values find each other, find resources and best practices, and find support and mentorship.”
Gather has brought engagement journalism into the bigger conversation through a dedicated award, listed resources and committed professionals who encourage curiosity about community engagement.
Brown, who serves on the board of Gather, said, “Having a space with these similar interests and needs has been just so valuable. Otherwise, it can be kind of isolating.”
As engagement journalists and leaders find one another, they are shifting the industry conversation toward one that recognizes engagement as a complex, multi-faceted tool, one that can help newsrooms better fulfill their obligations to the public.
The Center for Journalism Ethics encourages the highest standards in journalism ethics worldwide. We foster vigorous debate about ethical practices in journalism and provide a resource for producers, consumers and students of journalism. Sign up for our quarterly newsletter here.