The recent history of journalism in America is full of tectonic shifts, brought on by changes in technology and society. For too long, many of those changes happened outside of newsrooms, but increasingly we are seeing fundamental cultural shifts in news organizations that are changing how, and to sometimes why, journalism is done.
One of those shifts has been the emphasis on community engagement. The media landscape is shifting and becoming more participatory, and our communities want to do more than just read the news. They want to be co-creators, collaborators, distributors and they want to put the news to work, to improve their lives and communities. At the same time, financial challenges have forced news organizations to build new networks of support with their audience and community.
While newsrooms have invested in various forms of community engagement – from mobilizing local bloggers into coordinated networks, to robust social media strategies and community events – there is still a lot we don’t know about how to assess and measure the impact of community engagement.
In a new report, Engaging Audiences, J-Lab, surveyed 783 “digital-first” news startups (278 responded) on their community engagement strategies. One of the key findings is that while newsrooms are employing an array of creative online engagement strategies, they are unable to track how those efforts are moving communities up a ladder of engagement with the news organization. “Nearly eight in 10 respondents to a national online survey said they could not measure whether their audience-engagement strategies were also converting readers into advertisers, donors, content contributors or volunteers,” the authors report.
Right now, the report found, most social media tools are used to broadcast rather than engage, and the metric most often cited for measuring engagement was web traffic. The report argues that as a field, journalists need to develop better tools to measure engagement and there needs to be more conversation and sharing of lessons between newsrooms.
For me, what is more important than what we don’t know is the fact that we keep asking good questions. That’s encouraging. The J-Lab report is the third major report on measuring impact and community engagement. Here’s a short reading list for assessing community engagement – each report tackles the questions differently and provide useful ideas and recommendations:
- Engaging Audiences: Measuring Interactions, Engagement and Conversions – From J-Lab: “According to a national survey on audience engagement, nearly eight in 10 online survey respondents said they could not measure whether their engagement strategies were also converting readers into advertisers, donors, content contributors or volunteers.”
- The Engagement Metric: A Resource for Newsrooms – From the Reynolds Journalism Institute: “Journalists have a lot to learn from other disciplines about tracking what works. We’re not used to gauging our success in ways more sophisticated than ratings or circulation numbers, and we’re behind the measurement curve. But these days, it’s hard to value what you can’t measure. And as newsrooms grapple with how to make room in tight budgets for audience engagement, it’s natural that they’d also wonder what the return on that investment might be.”
- Investing in Impact – From The AU Center for Social Media and the Media Consortium: “Outlines the major arguments for assessing impact, synthesizes the five top impact evaluation needs, and proposes five new tools for public interest media assessment… The field cannot advance without tackling the question of impact head on. To be clear, effectiveness is not synonymous with advocacy. Traditional journalistic values include holding the powerful to account, engaging users in dialogue about issues, and delivering timely, relevant information. These are all trackable outcomes.”
Surveying all of these reports, one of the biggest challenge facing newsrooms is taking community engagement offline and back into communities. The majority of what we call community engagement today exists almost exclusively online and as such, newsrooms are missing a huge opportunity. Online engagement is attractive for a number of reasons:
- There are good tools and trainings for journalists (and new tech is always exciting)
- It is a mediated experience which is familiar to newsrooms
- It’s cheaper than in-depth, in person relationship building
- It avoids the appearance of community and political organizing
However, I believe that the tools of community organizers have a lot to teach journalists about expanding their reach, setting goals, defining success and measuring impact. A more thorough exploration of the intersection of traditional grassroots organizing tools and newsroom community engagement efforts will have to wait for another post. However, for two great examples to chew on check out California Watch’s work on school building safety and lead in jewelry. It is worth noting that California Watch places community engagement as a top priority for their work and have invested in experimenting with how best to do that.