What is engagement, anyway? Hearken’s Anna Thomas explains…

Engagement is one of those buzzwords that everyone uses, yet no one can entirely agree on how to define. Given that Hearken‘s central remit is nurturing engagement in newsrooms, we thought they’d be the ideal people to chat to, so we sent our blog writer, Em Kuntze, to speak to Hearken’s Director of Business Innovation, Anna Thomas, to find out a bit more…

Let’s start at the beginning, Anna. What exactly is Hearken?

We’re a technology platform and consulting service which helps journalists and reporters engage more deeply and meaningfully with their audience. We believe that journalists have tremendous insight about stories that would be of importance and significance to the public, but also that audience members do, too. And so we help create an inroad for that, along with a workflow and technology to support it.

Why do you think we’ve found ourselves at a point where something like Hearken exists? What’s changed?

Well, historically newsrooms have tried to cultivate ways to connect with their audiences with things like letters to the editor, but until the Internet came into popular use most people were limited to finding their news from a few sources: TV, radio, newspapers, their neighbours and friends. The Internet allowed individuals to control, create and distribute information themselves, without the traditional gatekeepers. While formats for displaying and distributing news have evolved in the past few decades, the process of making news hasn’t. We’re now at a point with technology where newsrooms can easily allow more access to the audience, and Hearken helps them make that possible. Since the U.S. 2016 presidential election, newsrooms have become much more aware that they desperately need more ways to listen to the public so they can report more accurately and serve the public’s needs more directly.

Is there a bigger gulf between journalist and reader now in the digital age than there was before?

That’s a great question. I don’t know if I have the exact answer. What I think is certain is that there is much, much more content available now, which is coming to us through multiple channels. Before I might have had a finite amount of information coming at me through a daily newspaper and the radio and TV. Now it’s relentless: people are both looking for information and trying to process the sheer amount that’s available to them. The digital age has made it far easier for the public and journalists to be in direct touch – to respond immediately to a story on social media, or in the comments section. Readers no longer have to write that letter to the editor and stick it in the mail, and reporters no longer are blind to the realities of how many people consumed, shared and reacted to their content.

From a newsroom point of view that can be really hard to manage. We need to double down and make sure that we’re sharing content and information that is in direct service to the audience. We need to focus on reaching voices and hearing from people that aren’t typically represented, because we’re almost drowning in a sea of information and it’s easy to miss key demographics and just go about reporting and publishing in the traditional ways.

Is that a new problem? Haven’t there always been underrepresented groups?

Well, yes: newsrooms have always catered to select audiences and there have been voices that haven’t been represented – or at least have been underrepresented – in news. I think we’re finally at a point as a society where those groups are starting to be heard, continuing to fight for visibility, and newsrooms are finally starting to more tangibly prioritize the need to have those voices represented.

What kind of newsrooms are you working with? Are they specialised publishers?

We do have some more specialized newsrooms among our client roster, but the majority are general newsrooms. One of our main aims is making sure that content is reflective of everybody that lives in a given community or is interested in the topics you cover, whether that’s local or national or however that community might look. As an industry it’s vital that we are telling the stories that represent the whole versus the few. We’re looking at our audiences to provide us with insights and information so that we can meet their needs successfully while also fulfilling our central mission: telling the stories that need to be told, with the audience having a seat of the table and influencing the content that goes out.

Not all week seems to go by that you don’t read about another local newsroom or newspaper folding. What’s to be done about this?

Ultimately these closures are because of money and a lack of resources, so we need to be very conscious of the business and the financial concerns that exist. What we know is that there is a direct correlation between engagement and people’s willingness to donate or subscribe or pay for news, so we believe that key is having the newsroom itself own and grow those relationships and publish content that really resonates with the audience. As newsrooms increasingly turn to business models that favour subscriptions or membership this becomes really important.

That leads me onto quite a large issue which is I know that at the very centre of Hearken: engagement. It’s a widely used term, but there doesn’t seem to be much consensus on what it actually is. Can you throw your two cents in?

Yes [laughs] that’s a very big question. I think we overuse the term engagement without really understanding what it truly means, and the reality is it’s going to look different to each newsroom. At the very minimum it has to mean a conversation back and forth between the end user and the newsroom. The nature of that conversation is likely to look different from place to place: you might have a publisher whose audience base may not even have access to the Internet, so engagement to them might mean reaching out through live events or partnering with schools or town halls. It all comes back to making sure that all people and communities have a way for their voices to be heard.

Humans are nuanced and unique so it seems self-evident that no single metric can hope to record that kind of complexity: they need to span a unique range to be useful

I think when we use the term ‘engagement’ there’s a tendency to focus on reader response to content, so it’s interesting that you take a more holistic approach.

I think it’s unfortunate that this connection isn’t being made: if you’re invested in finding out what your user base wants or needs before you write or produce your piece of journalism surely you’re going to have a better chance of seeing some healthy engagement data. We think that ideas and decisions taken on the newsroom floor can be guided by the outcomes of those conversations.

Going back to your original question, I don’t think we have a one size fits all definition of ‘engagement’ but I do think we’re increasingly moving towards a model where we look at each newsroom and what unique challenges and goals they face. It’s very much about customization, both in defining engagement and in finding a solution to those issues and questions. It has to be relevant to you and your audience and that is likely to look very different from one newsroom to another.

Do you think that the kind of simple metrics that have often become synonymous with engagement are too generic to be useful, then?

I would say so. Humans are nuanced and unique so it seems self-evident that no single metric can hope to record that kind of complexity: they need to span a unique range to be useful. Page views might be important for some things, but it’s going to be much more useful to look at a hybrid of those metrics, and what impact is seen as a result of those measurements.

Another thing is that ‘success’ is going to look very different to different people and in different newsrooms. I think it should be a blend of quantitative and qualitative goals as well as hitting on traditional data points and growing lists of subscribers and members, but it’s also important to look at what the audience is saying back to us when we ask them what they think. So, yes, in short it’s a blend of all these things to come up with an engagement rubric that makes sense for you as an organization and the audience that you serve. And constantly iterating on it.

At the very minimum [engagement] has to mean a conversation back and forth between the end user and the newsroom

Do you find your client base are nervous of the role of tech and data in their organizations?

I don’t think that the apprehension is for tech. I think the apprehension is with the idea of a change in newsroom culture. There are things which worked well in the past which can and should continue, but we also have to be alert to the fact that this is an industry facing many issues and challenges and we’re not going to be able to sustain let alone grow and build from here without changing something.

We’ve already seen in the TV sector that people are willing to go down a subscription route with streaming services, and cutting the cable cord.

That’s where we come back to this central idea of engagement as a conversation: if users see that their voices are being heard and their questions are being answered, they will start to feel like they’re invested in the process. It’s not helpful to reach out to audience members if you don’t do anything with the insights and feedback they provide. On the other hand, if you ask the question, give the answer and repeat that cycle over and over again, you’ll start to see your audience tune into the fact that you’re listening to them and that you want to give them the things that matter to them.

Find out more about Hearken here.


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