Listening to audiences is a practice that’s gotten lost in the crush of heavy workloads and small staffs. From the American Press Institute’s Manager study: “Notably, only one-fifth said that ‘news is a two-way conversation.’ This may reflect a lack of enthusiasm towards comments on news sites, or other forms of audience interaction, such as through social media. Or perhaps it simply ranks as a lesser benefit in the eyes of media workers, even as news organizations and philanthropic foundations emphasize its importance.

What are some ways for social media teams — and the rest of the newsroom — to get better at listening and engaging with audiences? We’ve collected some advice from the experts as part of our strategy study on reinventing the newsroom social media team.

Carrie Brown, who heads CUNY’s social journalism master’s program, recommends that social media journalists seek questions, not answers, from their readers.  Social media teams have a tendency to do “callouts” — asking audiences to take a poll or answer a question — where their responses fall into the abyss and are never addressed. That, says Brown, “is not engagement.”

Says Julia Haslanger of Hearken: “Your audience is smart and they have questions. Listening to their questions is a natural way to serve them.”

Scott Kleinberg, a longtime social media journalist, says working to engage audiences takes significant time and planning, but newsrooms will see the advantages. “To me an engaged audience helps us do our job better.” He recalled a train derailment in Chicago that essentially was covered by someone on the train until a newsroom photographer could get there. Because the reader had a relationship with the newsroom on social media, they were able to get photos, quotes and verification. “This is engagement,” says Kleinberg.

Every social media user won’t engage constructively with media organizations, of course. But Glen Flanagan, digital content manager at the Charleston Gazette-Mail, says the default position is to  “treat all audiences with respect.”  Strike a balance between conversation and providing a platform for idea-supported disagreements.

But before engaging with audiences, social media teams need to learn more about them.  A simple check of census data about the town or region offers an overview.  A deeper look is time-consuming but valuable, says Rubina Fillion of The Intercept.  Her staff has conducted focus groups with Intercept readers and non-readers and “people who read content similar to the Intercept but not the Intercept,” said Fillion.  Holding a few live events has given the staff an opportunity to talk more casually with people, Fillion says, and they’ve tried paid targeting on social media to bring in audience segments they want to grow, such as women.

Social media teams can be in the forefront of explaining how newsrooms work and setting their own newsrooms apart from “media” as a whole — an entity that’s suffering from lack of trust. “When people talk about us, they lump us together with ‘the media.’  We’re under that umbrella, but we’ve got to distinguish ourselves,” says Joy Mayer, leader of the Reynolds Journalism Institute’s Trusting News Project. “ ‘The media’ often DO sensationalize things, emphasize conflict, make things up and mask persuasion as news. They often AREN’T invested in public service or improving their communities.”

At the Boston Globe, says Jason Tuohey, deputy managing editor for audience engagement, “We have gotten more sophisticated in understanding our audience.” That’s particularly important now that the Globe has instituted digital subscriptions. Using Facebook to learn more about their one million followers will help convert those social media “likes” to subscribers, he says. Those who are already subscribers can become members of a closed Facebook group where they have additional contact and interactions, Tuohey said. “It’s a great place to experiment.”

From Tory Starr, director of social media at WGBH (Boston): Follow this creativity-filled project as you brainstorm ideas for engagement: Crossing the Divide, a year-long, cross-country road trip by a group of journalists, sponsored by WGBH (Boston) and the Groundtruth Project. The journalists experiment with a variety of tools and platforms as they talk with people about “the issues that divide us and the stories that unite us.”  

David Skok, former managing editor of the Boston Globe, has said journalism should be an SaaS or Stories as a Service — a play on a tech industry term Software as a Service.  “When you’re assigning stories not for clicks but for loyalty and retention, the journalism and the community will be better for it,” says Skok.


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