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Why Journalism Needs to Take Engagement Seriously

Originally published at

This is a bleak moment for the news industry. People on the right and left, as well as the president-elect himself, are blaming journalists for doing a bad job.

We are entering a period of necessary self reflection. How did journalists miss the mood of so much of the country? Why didn’t fact checks and endorsements have a bigger impact? Whose stories were not told? What more could journalism have done?

At The Coral Project, we have some ideas, based on more than two years of research in and around journalistic institutions, about how all this happened and what needs to happen next.

Journalistic culture needs to change. We need to focus more on listening, on dialog, and on building real communities of journalists and readers.

If we succeed, we can increase levels of trust and engagement among the general population, find more diverse contributors to our journalism and help bridge the gap between “the media” and everyone else. We can’t ignore our audiences any longer.

Making these changes won’t be easy. But journalists aren’t alone in this work — we’ve been tackling this problem since 2014, alongside many others. We can get it done together.

What we’ve learned

“It doesn’t feel like the reporters are listening.” — Rob, 42-year-old Coral Project research interviewee

We have to face what Jennifer Brandel of the startup Hearken has called the “serious problem the news industry does not talk about”:

“[R]eporters, editors, and managers alike have such disdain for their audiences. In conversations with newsrooms, we’ve witnessed this disdain range from subtle annoyance to straight-up hatred.”

Later in the piece, in conversation with GroundSource’s Andrew Haeg, she goes into more detail:

I can’t help but think that if you unpack the anger news folks can have toward their audience, you’d uncover sadness. It’s sadness that the public doesn’t understand or respect how much work and consideration goes into good reporting, sadness that they can’t always do their best work with ferocious daily demands, sadness that someone who they’re ultimately trying to help and serve thinks they are terrible at their jobs, or a terrible person.

Our research tells us the same thing. Many journalists simply do not see the value in engaging with readers on an ongoing basis. Others want to, but when they’ve tried in the past, they’ve suffered harassment, abuse, or were simply ignored. Some journalists now tell us as a point of pride that they never read the comments on their articles.

Meanwhile, in a forthcoming quantitative study across news sites conducted jointly with the Engaging News Project at the University of Texas-Austin, we have heard from readers that the enhancement to the comments section that they want most is for reporters to be present and to listen.

In most newsrooms feedback in the comments or on social media is restricted to looking for swear words or the occasional moderator whose sole job is to ensure that no one’s breaking the rules. There are few if any mechanisms to engage in meaningful dialog, or to find contributions that could improve the quality of the journalism.

The issue isn’t just around asking people for information before writing a story or asking them to comment after the story is over. It’s about creating a sustainable community around a particular beat or interest, one that shares ideas and experiences, provides questions and corrections, one that is involved and seeing a return for the time and energy put into supporting the journalism.

We hear this over and over: People want to trust and connect with journalism. But if journalists don’t listen to what people say, why should they listen to us?

The trends we’re seeing in newsrooms threaten to make this bad situation even worse. Over the past few years, some high-profile sites have chosen to outsource responsibility for their communities to Facebook and Twitter.

These platforms are great for outreach and certain kinds of conversation, but they are a poor substitute for direct connections with communities of readers: the moderation tools there are poor or non-existent, the conversations hard to direct and easy to derail, the filter bubble effect is a key feature, and the platforms themselves own almost all aspects of the relationship. (And these are platforms, remember, who are often directly competing with the business models of news through such initiatives as Instant Articles.)

There is another way.

Bringing about change

Readers — as well as people who no longer consume traditional media — tell us that they want to be heard by journalists, and that they want to have an impact on what they see.

Listening does not mean agreeing with everything that people say. It also does not mean having to accept abuse. Engaging as a journalist means conversing regularly with people who are prepared to join in an ongoing conversation, listening carefully to what they say, factoring their contributions into the reporting, actively reaching out to expand the diversity of voices you are conversing with and responding with care and respect to the power dynamics at play in every interaction.

Making this possible requires work. Establishing trust within online and offline spaces where we have not been present in the past is not a straightforward task. It takes time and requires authenticity. (The fastest and most effective way to move toward this quickly is to hire more diversely across class, ethnic, and geographic lines.)

Doing this work properly requires resources. Newsrooms will need to enact the cultural shifts that allow engagement to be properly resourced and to live in the heart of the journalistic operation. Here’s the good news: there are clear financial reasons for doing this well. We’ve heard from newsrooms who measure this that commenters spend more time on site than anyone else. The Information calls its comments one of the biggest draws for subscribers. A recent MIT-Sloan Management Review article discussed how community needs to be part of the editorial business model, moving away from unsustainable clicks and towards meaningful interactions that people will pay for.

For most sites, doing this properly requires a new set of tools.

Building tools to encourage change

Everyone we talk to has told us that they need better community tools.

Newsrooms want tools that allow them to host different kinds of communities that are neither echo chambers nor filter bubbles and encourage meaningful and strategic engagement. Now that social media is clearly alienating people who hold opposing views, a carefully managed community, underpinned by journalistic principles, can have a huge and powerful societal impact.

Community members want to see how their contributions can impact and be rewarded by news organizations. They also want to customize their community experience and see what their customization is excluding.

Journalists want tools that help them quickly find the best contributions with which they can engage, without having to wade through the worst. They also want to participate in communities that can improve their journalism, rather than distracting from it.

Publishers want tools that make it clearer how to turn readers into contributors, and contributors into subscribers (and maybe staff members); tools that can provide online spaces to continue and deepen in-person relationships established at events.

Everyone wants tools that protect journalists and community members from abuse and prevent a small number of people from dominating and disrupting the conversation.

Everyone wants tools that help them feel heard and be heard. Everyone wants a space that encourages better and more substantive dialog on their own terms.

These are the principles that underpin everything that we build at The Coral Project. We are releasing free tools to solve journalism problems with community — and vice-versa.

Others in this work

We aren’t the only ones are pushing for this change. Among so many others in this pursuit for real engagement and community at the heart of journalism: Hearken, GroundSource, Capital Public Radio, ProPublica, Reveal, PRI’s Global Nation, The Guardian, The Financial Times,, De Correspondent, Seattle Times, The attendees of the People-Powered Publishing Conference, held last week in Chicago. The authors of the Engagement Manifesto created at an event in Macon, Georgia. Those journalists in newsrooms around the world who are treated as curious creatures by their bosses for actually interacting and talking with their readers.

We have to move engagement front and center in journalistic practice, and we have to start now. We know that cultural change does not come easily to the industry. Yet change is urgently needed. If journalism is to remain relevant, important and a vital part of a functioning and robust democracy, we need to make a real commitment to listening and engaging at every level.

We must move quickly and with purpose to create a new relationship between journalism and the audience, based on mutual trust, accountability and respect.

The Coral Project is here to help. Let’s get to work.

Image from WOCinTech Chat, CC-BY 2.0

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