The ABCs of engagement journalism with Ben Whitelaw

What do you know about engaged journalism? The term has been around for a while, and many of us may intuit that it means journalists, editors and media organizations should be more engaged with their communities (there’s no such a thing as an ‘audience’ in engaged journalism). While that may be part of the answer, there’s much more to it than that – especially if you look at what’s in it for news organizations.

The thing about engaged journalism is that it’s supportive. It’s about improving the product, as well as the relationship between the publisher and the reader. Those involved in it are trying to help media outlets restore trust, develop new sustainable revenue models, and provide people with the diverse source of information they need to be able to make informed decisions. (Isn’t that last thing the very thing journalism should be about anyway?)

We decided to get down to details and find out what engaged journalism was really about. In a European context, there’s currently no better place to find out these things than the Engaged Journalism Accelerator, run by the European Journalism Center, an international NGO based in The Netherlands.

We caught up with their Engagement Lead, Ben Whitelaw, a man who moved away from his reporting job last year to help news organizations better understand the task of presenting and researching engaged journalism.

So Ben, what does engaged journalism include? How it is done?

It’s a broad term that covers everything from the organization and ownership of the news media to the day-to-day production of stories. It’s really a catch-all term, and not necessarily something new, either. It’s kind of an old idea that’s coming around again.

As a program, we’re thinking about it in different ways: the way media is owned, the way organizations are structured, and then all the kinds of stories and the processes used to gather those stories.

So, we see it as the stories that power communities to have conversations of their own, but it manifests itself in all of these different ways.

I’ve been reading about engaged journalism, and I saw people were seeking proof that it really worked. How do you reply to that, based on your personal experience?

I’d say we’re at the start of the journey to making that the case. With this type of journalism, we just started experimenting a few years ago. We need more data and more case studies; more examples to make this something we can talk about, and something we can draw conclusions from.

I’m not saying it definitely works right now, but it could work, and it could be something that underpins successful, sustainable and resilient news organizations. The next couple of years are going to be really important for finding that out.

Are you able to name a few outlets that practice engagement journalism and do it in the best way possible?

In Greece, there’s one called Inside Story, [which] has been going for two-and-a-half, almost three, years. It has 2,000 subscribers – it’s a subscription organization, digital only – so it makes its money from readers – which again isn’t anything new – but it gives accountability to the community it’s serving. They have a number of innovative ways of taking the temperature of their community, one of which is called ‘Your Story’. This is actually a face-to-face workshop they run in Athens, where they invite people to pitch ideas they want Inside Story to cover.

So, they basically propose topics in a more personal way, then? Rather than just emailing a lead?

Yeah – you have to go [to the workshop], you have to pitch a story face-to-face, and you’ll get feedback from a journalist directly in a table scenario. So, you’re discussing it among people and you’re getting feedback about why that story is good or bad, and why it might work. The people in the room then vote for the stories to go through to a kind of final, and, in a separate event, they decide which of those stories is the winner. Inside Story actually decided to cover the top five last time round because they were all so strong.

It’s once a year right now, but they’re looking to expand it into other locations in Greece and also make it more frequent. It’s quite an undertaking to do two events, but they get people out into the community and help the journalists to understand what the readers care about and what those communities care about. And it gives some transparency to the process of journalism too.

The other one I’d mention is The Bristol Cable, which is a co-operative media organization, based in Bristol in the UK. They have over 2,000 members, and they bring people in for an annual members’ meeting. It’s a similar situation to that of Inside Story, but it’s a bit more formal and it’s not just about stories – it’s about the business direction of the organization. They ask their members about things like whether or not they should be using Facebook to promote their stories or if they should be covering drugs abuse or local government, so they really decide the direction of the organization as a whole through this annual members’ meeting. They make it fun, and they put on beer and food as well.

Is Engaged Journalism reserved more for smaller organizations rather than big, legacy companies? Would larger companies have a problem implementing it – or a version of it?

It’s not impossible, but there are some big cultural challenges, and, having worked in a large organization for seven years that had those challenges, I’m well aware of how difficult they can be.

If you’re a big media organization, or, let’s say, a general media organization, it’s less clear what constituencies you’re really talking to. When you’re from a certain town or city, it’s much easier to understand what people care about; if your audience is spread over countries and cities, it’s very difficult to do that. But I don’t think it’s impossible. Topically, news organizations of whatever size could work more in this way. So, you may look at what people who really care about, say, education think. How do you invest resources and time to listen to what they care about? How do you commission and create content based on those ideas? Or maybe with [the people themselves] – because many of them will be experts in their field. But then, how do you have a business model which also relies on some of those interactions and those relationships?

What should news outlets do if they want to make a change and start doing more engaged journalism?

It has to start with experiments; there has to be a culture of experimentation in the organization. There has to be an admittance that there may be some failure, because not every experiment will succeed, and there has to be some space and time for individuals to go and do that experimentation.

Before you even decide what you’re going to do, creating the culture and the environment for that to happen is really important. Nowadays, a lot of people are doing their day-to-day jobs and experimenting on top. [They may not see the] rate of success they’d like, because they haven’t been given the ownership and accountability to run those experiments well.

So, there has to be an admission that somebody in the organization has to experiment. In terms of deciding to experiment, my advice would be to canvass opinions from across the organization. It doesn’t tend to work when that person or small team in charge of experimentation is locked away somewhere. They have to be talking to the rest of the organization and presenting back their learning. They have to be reporting into senior editors who have buy in – and who really care about that – and it has to be an ongoing process. It doesn’t happen overnight.

So, everyone from journalists to the CEO has to be aware of the same metrics?

Right. It used to be that the web editor and the online team would care about those metrics, but increasingly you have teams who are working across media, so, from a strategic point of view, [everyone] needs to be aware that what they’re doing contributes to a bigger goal. Everyone [needs to be] very clear of what that goal is, and that comes down to good management and leadership, frankly.

In terms of metrics, which ones are the most useful for the engaged model?

There’s no single metric that’s going to be the indicator of the health of an organization from an engagement perspective; because engaged journalism is quite a broad term, you’ll have different indicators for that. But, for example, from an ownership and business point of view, you’re looking at everything from donations and subscriptions to the frequency of those contributions, the churn rate of subscriptions and the preparedness to pay extra, which you may glean from things like surveys, reader panels or reader-focus testing. That’s one area.

In terms of day-to-day content production, you’re looking at a much more complex matrix of analytics – things like scroll depth, finishability of an article, interactions.

You’re looking at how frequently people come to the site generally, and how recently they’ve visited as well. The team at The Local have worked really hard on this – you can read our use cases with them here.

It’s easy to forget they’ve taken a long time to get where they are. They started in 2004, so they’ve spent the last decade-and-a-half experimenting and evolving their model to the point where they now have the membership. They’ve [reached] 7,000 members in just 12 months, and they’re experimenting a lot with the home page message, which is something we covered in a recent newsletter.

Organizations are finding the metrics they care about. What’s really key is making sure everyone is aware of those metrics and is doing something to contribute to them.

So, The Local has a Managing Director and a Managing Editor who are very clear about what those goals are. They’re very good at communicating that across the team. They’ve made everyone aware of the metrics, as well as insights from the data [gathered by] Content Insights and other tools they use.

I saw a French outlet called Rue89 that makes community events to reach more people. Can that model be applied to a bigger organization? Not the NYT, maybe, but somewhere like the Guardian? Would it work?

It can to a degree. When I think about success, I think about it being revenue generating, and also a channel for people to communicate what they care about that has some kind of trust indicators applied to it. So, you definitely can. If the Guardian were to roll out some of the events they run in other countries where they have an audience, I think they’d be successful.

It would require teams on the ground, and those events tend to cost a lot to do really well. But news organizations could compromise on the production values of these events. The organizations we’ve spoken to don’t necessarily have graphics and screens, but they’re hosting a conversation with their readers. In the US, you’ve got organizations like City Bureau in Chicago who are doing this really well.

It’s a trade-off: what are those events for? They tend to be money-making organizations right now, but they could be used in a different way.

Is engagement journalism universally applicable or are there countries and cultures which suit it better?

I really do think that there’s a place for it in most, if not all, countries. We’ve been to Spain, Italy, France and Holland, but we’ve also been to Ukraine and Greece, and we’re planning to do much more work in Central and Eastern Europe as well. We see and meet organizations who are doing work in this space and really profiting from it. The organizational health is good, they’re making good journalism, so I don’t buy this idea that it only works in certain countries.

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