Interview: Jake Batsell

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Jake Batsell

Author of Engaged Journalism, Digital Journalism Professor, SMU, shares his thoughts on the media business today and what the future of engaged journalism will look like.

Q: How have you seen journalism evolve in the digital age? Are there any challenges and opportunities that this evolution presents for anyone thinking of joining the profession?

The biggest shift concerns the importance of engagement.

My generation and those before largely focused on the product of journalism.

Journalism focused on reporting accurately and fairly, covering all sides of the story and ensuring credibility. These concepts were the hallmarks of great journalism and still ring true today.

What’s changed now is that the job is not over when you hit the send button to the editor. Today, you begin having an ongoing conversation with the audience at the front-end of the reporting process.

After the story appears, you continue to earn the attention of readers through the story’s circulation and real-time reactions from your audience. You’ll likely choose to pursue stories that keep your audience in mind to continue this conversation.

Your gut instinct probably tells you to listen to your audience and write on topics that are important to them. And it’s right.

Analytics have shown us time and time again that there has been a shift in journalism from a lecture model to a two-way conversation.

This shift is not just about the product of journalism. It’s about the ongoing conversation with your audience and understanding what they want and incorporating the audience into this process.

There is a quote from a News Corp news executive, Raju Narisetti, that comes to mind that summarizes the importance of engaging your audience: “The definition for any journalist in the 21st century is to get more readers to consume more of their journalism.”

So it makes sense why we would need to be genuinely committed to listening to our audience.

There are three main ways to achieve this: by leveraging social media, interacting face-to-face and using analytics.

Use social media to your advantage.

Social media is not only useful for crowdsourcing and finding tips, but it can also provide insight on what people are saying about a particular topic and what conversations are coming out of it.

Social media is a valuable resource that shouldn’t be underestimated, and, this reminds me of the old truism from Dan Gillmor that the audience is smarter than you, no matter what subject you’re covering.

One indicator to understand whether this two-way dialogue is present to look at a reporter’s Twitter feed. Are they using their account for self-promotion or are they having conversations with their audience? Even if the reporter is not connecting Twitter back to his writing, it is still important to see he/she is open to having a discussion.

For example, a baseball writer could reply about players’ injuries or could ignore the tweets completely.

Secondly, you should consider getting out to meet your audience.

There are many opportunities for journalists to participate in face-to-face events to support goodwill, community and help pay for revenue. While many shy away from get involved in more public facing roles (i.e. moderating panels, holding office hours at a local Starbucks), these can be great opportunities to better understand and connect with a community.

Who’s doing face-to-face well? Off the top of my head there are two examples:

The first one is beat reporter, David Levinthal from the Center for Public Integrity. Previously, he wrote for Washington’s POLITICO and we also worked together at DMN covering politics. His work is well-sourced and he is incredibly productive and open in media interviews. David also has a strong social media presence where he openly has conversations with his audience.

He’s known to reply to text messages, g-chats, and being available when readers contact him. This is especially important in DC to be plugged in with his audience.

Another excellent example is Amanda Zamora, Senior Engagement Editor at ProPublica. She teaches a free class to 100 journalists and assembles Facebook groups (e.g. on patient harm investigation) instead of waiting for her story to be finished and then publishing it and waiting for a reaction. Amanda leads an effort to build community at the front-end of that reporting process. She basically asks her Facebook audience: is this happening to you? Then join us and learn from each other and inform our ongoing reporting.

Finally, it is important to look at analytics to understand audience engagement.

For example, Viafoura has real-time tools at your disposal to understand what your audience is reacting to. You can incorporate this data, not to seed editorial judgment to the numbers, but rather, it allows you to keep the numbers in mind when deciding how to cover the news, better understand your audience and leverage resources in your community to engage with your audience.

Q: What inspired you to write the book Engaged Journalism?

My inspiration first started with the two articles I published in the Columbia Journalism Review.

The first article was about the birth of the Texas Tribune. During the time I was working on it, I was a fly on the wall as it was launching.

I was particularly interested in understanding how they incorporated data driven reporting, face-to-face events and took full advantage of digital tools – all while not being encumbered by a legacy news habit!

The second article focused on the digital coverage of high school football.

I wanted to be along for the ride when the Dallas morning news developed the first play-by-play app that allows sports fans to keep up with high school football games in real-time. On any given Friday, you can choose from 50-70 games to watch, all at the touch of your fingertips.

Right before my eyes, I was seeing how a virtual experience changed the way we watched and interacted with sports.

Researching and writing both articles opened my eyes to the direction that journalism was heading.

The importance of the audience was increasing and this was changing the way journalists did their jobs.

I wanted to go beyond Texas to visit newsrooms to learn more. So I applied and received funding to go on a research sabbatical.

I visited startups, radio broadcasters and TV newsrooms all around the US (DC, Mid-West, Michigan, Phoenix, Las Vegas) to understand first-hand how they were adapting in their relationship and engagement strategies to their audience.

More than 25 newsrooms and 100 interviews later – I came up the best practices and common themes that make up the book Engaged Journalism.

Q: What are the most common mistakes that media organizations are making? And who is leading the pack when it comes to building a highly engaged online audience?

The most common mistake is a lack of strategy. This happens when organizations approach something half-heartedly instead of committing to a set of engagement strategies.

I’ve noticed that news organizations tend to slap their comment box at the end of the story and then don’t make any attempts to guide the conversation.

Comments that don’t support the story become a self-fulfilling prophecy when you create a forum and make no effort to monitor or guide it in a productive way. It’s no wonder why comments can get so uncivil.

Don’t begrudge news organizations that have decided to turn off commenting. At least they are making a strategic decision.

If news organizations do want to incorporate commenting to give readers a voice, they need to commit to a strategy. They can start by training reporters/editors to guide discussions, creating incentives, and having less expectation to churn out stories and more commitment to allowing time to meaningfully engage in the comments.

In terms of social media strategy, it isn’t enough to go on Twitter and simply push out stories. This shows a lack of strategy, vision, training and best practices for social media. There needs to be more of an effort to create good experiences for users.

Having said this, technology has evolved a lot since I first completed my book’s manuscript at the end of 2013.

In the past two and a half years, we’ve seen the evolution of Snapchat, Virtual Reality, and live video with Periscope – just some of the many new tools that are changing the way we interact.

We’re also seeing more news organizations hire Community Managers and Audience Engagement Specialists to manage, engage and grow their audience.

The 5 core themes (main chapters) of my book still provide a broad framework for defining Engaged Journalism.

Engaged Journalism – 5 core themes

  1. Face-to-face (in-real-life communication)
  2. News as conversation (using digital tools)
  3. Mining niche audiences
  4. Providing interactive news experiences
  5. Measuring and monetizing it all

Q: There doesn’t seem to be an industry standard for what media organizations would define as loyal. Do you agree with this? How would you define a loyal audience?

I would have to agree. The definition depends on the organization and their mission. Viral traffic is always a happy accident when it occurs.

To better understand audience loyalty, it is important that we shift the focus towards quality of the audience over quantity.

It is less about pageviews and unique visitors in the eyes of the news organizations and more about returning visitors and engaged users. This includes users who return to the site, bookmark pages, sign up for emails, push notifications and who are constantly contributing to the conversation.

You should also be looking at who is coming to your events and using this as an opportunity to collect emails to build relationships with potential subscribers, members and supporters.

Defining a loyal audience also depends on the size and type of your organization.

For example, newspapers tend to focus on tracking topline numbers, unique visitors and pageviews that advertisers would want to know, while moving towards trying to attract loyal users who spent more time on the site and are active when they visit/return.

On the other hand, local/regional news focus more on local users’ unique visitors and pageviews and place higher emphasis on deep engagement than on volume.

Ultimately, we need better tools to track and predict audience loyalty. It’s becoming harder to assess if users are spinning tires or leading towards a relationship that would convert to avid support or subscription.

Q: There’s this quote from Mike Wilson, the news editor of DMN that comes to mind, “We’re all salespeople now.” How would you respond to that?

It’s true. We are all selling to some extent, marketing the value of our work. Journalists have to work hard to capture the audience’s attention and remember not to take this relationship for granted.

Comparing journalists today to salespeople, or marketers might seem like a stretch to traditional journalists who feel at odds with trying to sell a product or promote a campaign that is not specifically relevant to their news story.

But marketing has no doubt become a part of the story of how journalism works.

Q: How can media organizations connect the dots between audience engagement and revenue?

Collaboration is key. Start by creating a shared sense of mission between the business and editorial sides.

Establishing a collaborative atmosphere will help both sides come together and avoid crossing each other’s paths.

Work together to come up with shared goals. Figure out how you will measure and evaluate them. Try new products. And finally, track and adjust your goals accordingly.

Q: In your opinion, what is the most important goal for media organizations to achieve by 2017?

It’s really critical that you earn the audience’s attention.

More broadly speaking, it is also important to diversify revenue streams.

Advertising is and will always be part of the equation. But you should never put all your eggs in one basket.

New forms of native advertising are especially interesting when they are executed well and bring more value than just advertising.

Webinar: The Future of Engaged Journalism

We’re discussing the intersection of journalism and audience engagement.

Listen to Engaged Journalism author Jake Batsell explore the changing relationship between news producers and audiences. You’ll also gain fresh insights into the future of audience development for media organizations.