We’ve been thinking about engagement a lot recently, partly because it’s something worth thinking about, but also because it’s something that’s being talked about a lot in the industry.
Over the past year such venerable news organisations as The Economist and The Washington Post have been actively seeking out ways to ‘engage’ their audience, but it would be a mistake to think of engagement as something concerned only with the metrics of post-publication. We asked Joy Mayer, the community manager at new engagement journalism platform Gather, to explain a little more.
Joy, firstly, congratulations on the launch of Gather! Can you explain a little about its purpose?
Gather is a platform to support people who are doing engagement journalism. It started because engagement is a new enough specialty that it has – up until now – lacked the kind of infrastructure that you find with other forms of journalism. If you’re a data journalist for example, there are resources like conferences and lists that you can go on which enable you to connect with people doing similar kinds of work. That’s not something we really have and without that kind of dialogue and conversation among peers, it can be a pretty inefficient way of working: we’ll make the same mistakes that others have already made because there’s just no way to share knowledge and skills.
It’s also quite hard to connect with people in the field because the job titles are so different: someone who’s an online producer at one newsroom might actually have a lot in common with a social media manager or a live events coordinator somewhere else, but it can be difficult to connect.
Gather went live last month, but how long has the project been in the pipeline?
Back in 2015, the University of Oregon led by Andrew DeVigal hosted a workshop called ‘Experience Engagement’ which brought together quite a few people working in engagement who started to share ideas. We realised that there was a need to find a way to connect people beyond that conference, and the seeds of an idea were planted. We received some funding from the Knight Foundation and the Democracy Fund, as well as support from the University of Oregon and started to build the platform.
Andrew is in charge of it and I’m the Community Manager. We have had almost a thousand people sign up since our public beta launch at the beginning of October, so clearly the need is significant. We’re finding that people are excited by the idea of being able to find best practices.
How does it work?
It’s simple. There’s an explainer video along with some history of Gather at LetsGather.in and you can request an invitation. You should get a link to sign up within a day or so and from there you’re ready to go.
On the platform you can search case studies, job listings and events. We have what we call ‘lightning chats’ where about once a week or so we host a 30 minute video chat on Zoom around a specific topic and anybody can join. So we’re trying to build up the idea that even if you work on these issues without direct colleagues, you still have a tribe – or a team – of remote colleagues who understand the language, the issues and what we’re trying to accomplish.
What sort of issues are you covering in those chats?
At this point we are inviting conversation around specific topics. In October we were looking at Facebook groups, so we were talking about how to incorporate those into your journalism, what your metrics are and how you recruit for that. We had something like 24 people gathered in on the Zoom line and the conversation usually continues back on Gather and offline too.
I don’t know if you’re actually on Gather, but there is a summary of each of our Lightning chats where you can actually read the notes and watch a replay of our chat with educators.
I am and I have taken a look – it’s a great resource. Are people who have signed up to the platform coming from a particular kind of newsroom?
They’re joining from all over the place. I think that last time we counted we had 40 countries represented and within that we have representatives from commercial organisations, non profits, those doing foundation work or from academia. It’s very diverse and tells us that this is definitely an issue that is resonating broadly across the industry.
I think before we go too much further we should talk a little about engagement journalism itself: how would you define it? As you say, it manifests in different ways…
It definitely does. On Gather we’re really focused on what we call relational engagement instead of transactional engagement. So it’s very much about insight, it’s about a feedback loop, it’s about inviting the people we aim to serve to collaborate with us as we decide what to cover and how to cover it. And on top of that it’s about being really responsive to the feedback we get.
Put another way, when we talk about engagement we think of it much more about building relationships than we do about the number of comments on an article. Of course, there are people whose job it is to increase the amount of time spent on page, or the number of comments and we want to talk to them as well and offer as much support as we can, but we think it needs to go deeper.
You mean that transactional engagement isn’t ever going to see a lift unless the underlying content is sound to begin with?
A lot of that is at the heart of the practice, yes. We’re very interested in bringing the community in as we decide what to cover and we also think it’s vital to stay involved after the piece is published to see how the community is interacting with it, how they’re responding to it, fact checking it, and yes, engaging with it.
It sounds to me like all these other aspects of the industry could benefit from that degree of collaboration and communication…
I think one of the reasons engagement is so hard to define is because it does necessarily look different for different news organizations and also for different people within that organization. If you’re working on a six month investigative project where you’re requesting a lot of documents and digging through records and really cultivating some expert sources engagement is going to look very different than if you’re covering daily cops and courts or if you’re covering food or sports.
So, yes we have people on Gather who work as reporters but who see relational engagement as a key part of what they’re doing. We have hiring editors who get to hire for engagement positions and are trying to figure out you know what skills to hire for. We have academics who are studying engagement or figuring out how to incorporate engagement philosophies into the way that they teach journalism.
You say that the need for Gather is a new one – what’s changed in the industry? Hasn’t relational engagement always been a part of the practice?
Well, the tasks of journalism have really expanded: it used to be simpler. It used to be that you could find somebody else in your newsroom who’d done what you were trying to do, or found the sources you were trying to find or that had expertise and the specific skill that you were looking for and we’re just trying to do so many things now.
Is Gather a solution to a modern problem, then? Or something that’s been an issue for a while?
While the idea behind Gather wasn’t something we invented from scratch I think the issues have always been a concern.
The difference now is that there’s more diversity in the types of journalism as well as the fact that the way people consume it has changed so much.
News consumption is more haphazard and accidental than it used to be, so it’s more important than ever that we understand whether or not we’re reaching the people we think we’re reaching. We no longer have a choice of one or two options to consult if we need to know something: there are hundreds of thousands. With that in mind we need to pay more detailed attention to how we’re deciding what to cover and how we actually cover it. That’s where engagement becomes so important.
You’ve also spearheaded the Trusting News Project and it seems that the idea of trust and engagement may very well be two sides of the same coin. What’s your opinion on this?
It’s a very interesting intersection. The approach I’m taking to studying trust with the Trusting News Project is determining how people decide what to trust and using those insights to think about ways we can better demonstrate credibility.
There are a lot of ways to come at the problem of trust and yes, you’re right, a lot of those solutions relate to engagement too. There are a lot of technology solutions, a lot of big picture solutions, but my focus has been on finding specific things journalists can be doing on a day to day basis that demonstrate why they are worthy of trust in the first place.
We recruited newsrooms to interview their own news consumers about how they decide what to trust and we ended up with 81 hour-long interviews with journalists sitting down with people in their communities talking about how they decide what news is believable. We also asked things like if they saw their own lives reflected in the news, and it was fascinating to me to find so many of those journalists reporting back and saying how refreshing it was to just sit down and connect with people in their communities.
I imagine most journalists feel that’s what they’re doing: is it that people want a more explicit account of journalistic process and workflows?
Well, that’s interesting. A lot of the things people say they want are things that journalists are already doing, for example hearing from multiple sides of a story, but the fact that they don’t feel that that’s being done and don’t recognize that tells me that we have a storytelling gap.
So, it’s about changing the presentation?
I think it’s helpful to think about what builds trust in your personal life. If you show up at a party and there are some people being loud and drunk and obnoxious, and the host doesn’t kick them out, you might not trust that that’s a safe place for you to talk and you certainly aren’t going to want to come to that party again if that’s the case. The same goes for journalism: building readership trust is about making the newsroom, the journalists working in it and the finished product feel relevant, inclusive and safe. That might be done by spending more time physically talking with your community, but it also means enforcing comment policies and responding to people’s’ questions and doing all that in a way that’s visible.
The longer I work on trust and engagement, the more I believe that news organisations that are not in touch with the information needs of the people they claim to serve are not going to have a long future. There’s a higher level of expectation from audiences about interactivity and responsiveness and customization and I think that we as an industry need to come to terms with the fact that each individual piece of content needs to earn its audience.