Working in local news, it’s a word you probably hear a lot: Engagement.
“It’s the buzzword,” says Sue Robinson, a journalism professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “It’s been around for a few years now at this point, and it’s really kind of taken hold and developed into its own kind of ecosystem.”
Swirling within that ecosystem are a whole host of engagement tools, engagement metrics, and engagement initiatives. But to move beyond the buzzword, Robinson helped organize a recent symposium on the subject, inviting two journalists-turned-academics to share from their new books on engagement — and discuss what it can actually do for a newsroom’s relationship with its audience, according to their research.
“Both have been really helpful to me in trying to understand the ‘shiny’ of engagement strategies as a way to build trust,” said Robinson at the virtual talk, which was co-organized by Valérie Bélair-Gagnon, a professor at the University of Minnesota. “But also the problematic realities that accompany any new technique — the newsroom constraints, fickle and stubbornly polarized audiences, and also global conditions around media systems.”
Andrea Wenzel’s Community-Centered Journalism: Engaging People, Exploring Solutions, and Building Trust was released over the summer. And due out this month is Imagined Audiences: How Journalists Perceive and Pursue the Public by Jacob Nelson, an assistant professor here at our own Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at ASU. (Wenzel and Nelson are also Knight Innovation Fellows with Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, and the Knight Foundation underwrites our work as well.)
Successful engagement requires newsrooms to build new, non-traditional skills
Even among those who study it, engaged journalism “can mean very many different things,” said Wenzel, an assistant professor at Temple University. “It could be transactional thinking, just audience ‘likes’ and clicks, or it can be more relational and focused on civic engagement. In my work, I generally focus more on the relational aspects […] And I argue that solutions journalism and engaged journalism are the peanut-butter-and-jelly of journalism: They’re each potentially delicious on their own, but could they not be so much stronger together?”
Local TV newsrooms all over the country have been serving up engagement experiments as journalism becomes more audience-focused. Among the many examples we’ve covered: solutions journalism projects at Nexstar; post-pandemic rebuilding projects like Scripps’s The Rebound; WSOC’s affordable housing series in Charlotte, North Carolina; the ABC Owned Stations’ community journalism program; and Gray’s massive new collaboration to improve public health in Appalachia and the Mississippi Delta.
Wenzel has led and studied a variety of local reporting projects in Los Angeles, Kentucky, Philadelphia, and beyond. She found that when newsrooms experimented with ways to forge deeper connections — by taking a “solutions” approach that covers community responses rather than just problems, and by taking an “engaged” approach that brings residents into the reporting process itself — they had better outcomes than when they just paid for targeted ad campaigns on Facebook, even ones that reached hundreds of thousand people.
While the measurements for success differed according to the different projects and places, Wenzel said the most effective efforts improved “communication health” between newsrooms and community members, whether it was by partnering with a local library to seek out their story feedback or inviting them to pick the topics for monthly community discussions.
“There are different actors who are involved in telling the community’s stories,” she said. “You have your local media, but then you also have community groups and residents. And when the relationships between these actors are strong, people tend to have a shared understanding of what issues their community has, and what they might be able to do about them. But when links between these actors are weakened — say, the community’s divided along lines of ethnicity or language, or if the stories circulating in the network are exclusively negative — then the network is weakened.”
In that way, Wenzel said engaged journalism offers newsrooms new opportunities to strengthen ties — if they’re willing to embrace some new roles and skills: “Most of these projects challenged traditional journalism norms and assumptions in some way. They used skills like facilitation or information-needs assessment or community organizing practices. And these practices offer value because each, in some way, is premised on sharing power […] They saw themselves as trying to help solve community problems if they could. They saw themselves as trying to be advocates for the community.”
In other words, she said successful engagement often uses “a different set of values than that traditional arm’s-length, objectivity-orientation to a community,” and it can mean “letting go of expectations that interactions always have to happen on the newsroom’s terms.”
But does stronger engagement necessarily lead to greater sustainability?
It seems natural to assume that making stronger community connections will help boost a newsroom’s revenue. But Jacob Nelson’s research challenges that tempting notion — and has implications for the relatively healthier business models of local TV stations, not just their beleaguered print and digital counterparts.
“As the news industry continues to struggle,” he said, “in terms of its trust problem among the public, and also in terms of its difficulty finding any sort of financial stability or a business model that will actually work, people look to this idea of audience engagement as the solution to those problems.” But he wondered: Can engaged journalism really do all that?
So Nelson set out to analyze how journalists perceive their relationship with the public — and how much power they actually have to change that relationship through engagement strategies. He collected data at two Chicago organizations where engaged journalism is central to the mission — Hearken, a company that provides engagement tools for newsrooms, and City Bureau, a local news nonprofit that covers and collaborates with communities on the city’s often-overlooked South and West Sides — as well as the more traditional Chicago Tribune.
“All of these conversations at City Bureau, at Hearken, at the Tribune constantly came back to: What can journalists do to fix journalism? Implicit in that was this idea that journalists had a great deal of power and agency when it came to improving their relationship with the public,” said Nelson. “And that raised a really important question for me, which was: How accurate is that framing? How much agency do journalists really have when it comes to influencing the way that audiences interact with the news?”
The surprising, unsettling answer? Not as much as newsrooms would like to think. Nelson’s study of audience behavior saw that it’s influenced by a lot of powerful “structures” outside of journalists’ control — like Facebook’s algorithm, which can change and show people fewer local stories, and the saturated news ecosystem, which has helped larger, prominent brands like CNN and the New York Times to grow while small outlets struggle.
“In light of the structures and the influence they hold over how audiences actually interact with the news they consume, it’s worth considering that journalists actually have less power over that relationship than they might care to believe,” said Nelson. “I argue for what I call ‘journalistic humility,’ which is basically encouraging journalists to accept that limitation.” As he writes in a related essay for the Columbia Journalism Review, “Even if journalists make the exact news that their audiences want, how those audiences react remains outside of journalists’ control, which means that journalism’s reception will always be at least somewhat unpredictable.”
Nelson said that may sound like “kind of a downer” — but it doesn’t have to be. “Really, what I’m trying to do is just make the conversation a little bit more realistic,” he said. “What I suggest is that we split this conversation about solving journalism’s sustainability problem and its quality problem into two. Not only because I think that’s a fairer way to understand the circumstances and a more accurate way of understanding the power that journalists have — I also think it sets up engaged journalism for success more than it does for failure.”
Nelson’s advice to newsroom leaders in a follow-up interview with us: Evaluate how much your engagement project helps your particular audience, but don’t expect it to solve all that’s ailing journalism — including financial pressures. Rather than putting unrealistic expectations on engaged journalism, the answer is for more news organizations to start addressing the larger structural problems in the industry.
“That’s where I see the optimism,” he said. “Once journalists give up on this idea that, ‘We will implement the thing that will work for us, and then it can be replicated at other news organizations,” and instead say, ‘The things that need to change are bigger than any one news organization,’ we can maybe mobilize and push for changes to take place. We can actually create a news media environment that can support the valuable local news that we want to be making.”