While editors at U.S. daily newspapers overwhelmingly say they think audience engagement has become an important part of practicing journalism, they're often not sure what that means or how to go about it. Many have yet to embrace tools that allow them to understand and interact with their audiences. Not even half of respondents said that they use social media to listen as well as share information, that they interact with readers in comments sections, or that they use their analytics reports to help make news decisions.
A telephone survey of 529 managing editors, executive editors, and editors of daily community newspapers in March, April and May of 2011, validated that audience engagement is on the minds of editors, and not just the editors I interviewed this year who are on the cutting edge of experimentation. Many acknowledged that their news processes need to be more social and collaborative, and some mentioned hiring people specifically with that in mind.
The survey was administered by the RJI Insight and Survey Center of the Missouri School of Journalism.
Highlights of the findings included:
- Editors are thinking about making the news more social and participatory.
- Editors see engagement as part of good business. Over and over in the open-ended responses, they said connecting with and listening to their communities is vital to their newspapers' survival. That said, they don’t know how to fit it in when newsroom staffs and resources are shrinking.
- 45% say they do not interact with their audiences in the comments section of their websites.
- The majority of editors receive reports about their website analytics, but only half say they use the reports to make decisions about what to cover.
- Editors often have a narrow view of what engagement can mean. The industry would benefit from more discussion about best practices and strategies.
The questionnaire had these sections:
- Overall engagement with communities
- Importance of community outreach by newsrooms
- Importance of community conversation involving newsrooms
- Importance of collaboration with communities
- Use of social media for interaction with audience
- Use of web analytics report in news decision making
- Transparency about newsroom and individual journalists
You'll notice that some of the questions are grouped according to three working categories of community engagement I've developed as part of my RJI fellowship: outreach, conversation, and collaboration.
Here are some highlights of what we learned. For complete results, and further explanation, please click on the link at the bottom of this post to view the full report.
86 percent of editors say their newsrooms have conversations about how to make the news more social or participatory.
44% of respondents reported that their newspapers’ involvement with their communities would increase over the next 12 months, and 56% said they would remain the same. Cross tabulation analysis shows that 50% of newspapers with a circulation of 25,000 or more plan to increase involvement, compared to 43% of newspapers with a circulation of less than 25,000. (In case you’re curious, most of the 2% of editors who said their involvement would decrease attributed that to staffing shortages.)
Open-ended answers to this question included:
"I think we've gone through a period of consolidation and coming out of it, we've recognized that we need to increase our closeness with the community."
"More of the readers are looking at the newspaper as something they own. Keeping the paper relevant and local is a factor."
"It's what is necessary to survive in this economy."
"We're actually in the process right now of hiring an interactive editor - it's a new position - and that will be a big part of that person's job; getting the newspaper and the website more connected to the community."
In assessing the importance of "community outreach," a combined 72% of respondents thought it was either "very important" or "important."
"I think we have to move beyond the passive reader and get people engaged - when people go to the web, they often want to be engaged or respond to a story, or pass that story onto somebody else. To keep our readers, we have to engage them and have a two-way conversation, not a one-way conversation."
"If we're not attached to the community, what purpose do we really serve?"
“Without the community, we're dead in the water.”
Similarly, a combined 84% of editors rated "conversation with community" as either "very important" or "important."
"The future is going to be interactive and that means conversation."
"If we fail to listen, fail to be aware of what s going, we will cease to exist."
"Again it kind of builds a relationship between the newsroom and reader."
In comparison, it’s noteworthy that only about half of respondents (52%) thought "collaboration with community" was either "very important" or "important," 36% "neutral," and 12% either "not important" or "not at all important." In this category, some editors expressed enthusiasm, and others shared reservations about the evolution of the role of the community.
"We can't do it all, particularly with the limitations of our staff room. If we collaborate with the community, they can help be our eyes and ears." (Several mentioned being understaffed.)
"It seems like the thing to do."
"I have been in business long enough to know that a lot of what they have to supply is based on opinion and when you're in the fact business you can't really rely on what they say. I'm always willing to listen, but a lot of what gets said is based on opinion and passion, not facts."
When asked "Do you interact with your audience in the comments section of your news site?" only 55% of respondents said "yes." Further analysis shows that newspapers with a weekday circulation of 25,000 or more (63%) interact with audience in the comments section significantly more than those with a weekday circulation of less than 25,000 (53%).
84% said yes to the question: Do you use social media such as Twitter or Facebook to interact with your audience? Among those that use the new media, a combined 82% of daily community newspapers either "very often" or "often" use social media for interaction with audience.
Interacting, however, means different things to different editors. When asked, "How often do you use digital tools such as social media tools to listen to what your community is saying on platforms or Web sites other than your own Web site?" only 49% answered "very often" or "often."
Further analysis shows that newspapers with more news staff used the new tools to listen to what their community is saying on other platforms or websites other than their own more than those with smaller staff members. It also shows that younger editors and those with fewer years of experience in their current news organizations used the digital tools on non-newspaper platforms or websites more than their older counterparts and those with more years of experience.
90% said yes to the question: Does your newsroom receive Web analytics reports about data such as page views, length of visit, and traffic of your Web site? 41% report receiving the report daily. 24% once a week and 24% once a month.
49% of editors reported that their newsrooms make decisions about what stories to cover based at least partially on the web analytics reports they receive. Cross tabulation analysis shows that weekday circulation size was a significant factor in editors’ responses, as newspapers with a circulation of 25,000 or more (72%) make decisions about news coverage at least partially based on web analytics reports significantly more than those with a circulation of less than 25,000 (44%).
Open ended responses for this question revealed quite a range of practices from constant access to analytics to a statement that analytics reviewing lies with the publisher, not the newsroom.
When asked if the newsroom invited the audience to contribute their own stories, more than three-fourth of daily community newspapers (76%) said yes. Furthermore, newspapers with a weekday circulation of less than 25,000 (79%) create the user-generated content significantly more than those whose weekday circulation was 25,000 or more (67%).
In contrast, in reporting specific stories, half of respondents said their newspapers would invite audience to help. There were significant differences between weekday circulation sizes, as newspapers with a weekday circulation of 25,000 or more (65%) would invite audience to help them report specific stories more than those with a circulation of less than 25,000 (46%).
The research report contains much more detail, along with analysis of how circulation size affected some of the answers.