Audience engagement could be key to a more satisfied newsroom: 4 takeaways to consider


The 21st century has been rough on journalists, particularly at newspapers, where almost half of all newsroom jobs have disappeared since 2008. That shrinking workforce has also been met with rising expectations for producing digital content across multiple platforms.

The latest in a line of evolutionary changes affecting the workforce is the concept of audience-first journalism – that journalists need to embrace audiences to save their jobs.

What if it might also save their souls?

In a recent survey of more than 100 journalists, I found that journalists are more satisfied and find their work more meaningful and significant when they practiced audience engagement, which I defined as using social media and analytics, as part of their job.

Unlike other tasks that have been piled onto journalists that might contribute to burnout, I suggest that audience engagement has the ability to actually rekindle the flames that keep journalists going.

The journalists surveyed come from across many positions and organizations, though most came from newspapers or digital-only outlets. The study was done as part of my thesis for my master's in media management at the Missouri School of Journalism.

In addition to measuring job satisfaction and the use of audience engagement, I also gathered comments directly from respondents about their thoughts on engagement. What they told me, and what I know from my own experience, is that there is a huge opportunity in most newsrooms to use audience engagement – in all of its forms, not just the two I studied – as a way to reinvigorate even the most skeptical journalist.

There's also an argument to be made that engagement shouldn't be delegated to a specific team or editor, but rather it should be a core competency of beat reporters and other frontline journalists.

You don't need to read my thesis to learn how. Luckily for you, I've distilled the research into four strategies for getting the most out of audience engagement in your newsroom.

1. Give everyone access to the feedback that comes through analytics and social media, especially as it relates to their job.

The biggest area where social media and analytics can improve journalists' satisfaction is by providing a new avenue for feedback. But there are clear signs that while newsrooms have the tools and the data, they do not have the context and conversation to generate actionable feedback. Analytics reports should not just be a dashboard; they should be thoughtful assessments of performance that put numbers into context. Story ideas driven by listening to audiences and informed by their conversations should be celebrated as "wins."

Comments to consider from real newsrooms:

  • "In two years no one talked to me about those numbers, what they mean, how they stack up, what we should do differently."
  • "I engage with my audience often because it makes me better at my job."

2. Use every opportunity to remind your newsroom about the significance and the impact of the work being done and who it is affecting.

Many journalists get into the profession with a zeal for serving the public good. This often means doing the work for the love of doing it rather than any other factor, so when audience engagement reveals that the work is having an impact, this can further motivate journalists to produce good work.

Comments to consider from real newsrooms:

  • "Audience engagement and analytics are core pieces to what we do each day and help us know how we can better serve our community."
  • "Our readers engage with us as individuals a lot ... our reporters are well informed on issues that affect our readers. They care what we think."

3. Connect the role of audience engagement and its goals to journalism ethics and the organization's mission. Create a dialogue around the meaningfulness of the work.

In other words, ask: "Why are we doing this?"

If the engagement practice is simply for more pageviews and clicks, keep asking why. For journalism work to have meaning beyond the job itself, it must not simply be self-serving. Managers can connect audience engagement with a broader belief in public engagement and strive to uphold ethical practices that define the best of the profession.

Comments to consider from real newsrooms:

  • "It is a sterile cycle. Readers and members of the community are viewed as clicks online with no regard for what print readers want to see in the paper."
  • "Traffic has become much more important than accuracy, reporting and good writing."

4. Provide continuous training and streamlined tools to ensure the tasks themselves do not hinder the motivation of journalists.

When a task is too difficult, either because it is too complex or because the worker is under-resourced in terms of equipment and training, motivation suffers and burnout is not far away. All of the other suggestions mentioned here are useless unless newsrooms invest in basic and advanced training in the tools of audience engagement. The more confident they are in the tools, the more confident they will be in their jobs.

Comments to consider from real newsrooms:

  • "I need to learn more and have better tools to do a better job."
  • "I don't necessarily know what they (web and social metrics) mean and it was never really explained to me when I started."

Ultimately, audience engagement can help journalists build their capacity to create informed communities that participate in our democracy. This social capital – which has been dwindling under economic pressure and widespread criticism of the press – must be intentionally rebuilt for journalism to thrive.

Matt Dulin is an editor with Community Impact Newspaper in Houston. Previously he was the director of community outreach at the Columbia Missourian.

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