By Anna Casey
The term “engagement” has been a topic of discussion in many newsrooms lately and is increasingly appearing across journalism job postings, but you could get a different definition for the word depending on the editor you ask. Karin Assmann, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Maryland’s college of journalism, interviewed 22 people at 20 U.S. newsrooms for her dissertation about the role of audience engagement editors, and found that nobody could agree on what the job really was.
“It’s in flux, it’s changing as we speak,” Assmann said while presenting her research at the ISOJ conference in Austin this April, “but I think what’s clear is that audience engagement editors are translators and they are change agents who are explaining to the journalists what they need to do.”
Even with these differing definitions for the emerging field of audience engagement, CUNY professor Carrie Brown helped define it in the classroom. Professor Brown heads the social journalism master’s program at CUNY, an M.A. she proposed and helped design. She answered some of our questions about the role of audience engagement in social journalism, and ways to introduce these social journalism techniques into the classroom or your own reporting.
Q&A with Carrie Brown, director of CUNY’s social journalism program
Q: Social journalism is more than just sharing stories on social media, or getting users to comment on a story. What is social journalism, and how is it different from traditional reporting?
A: The way we think about social journalism, at least at CUNY, is fundamentally about journalism as service rather than as a product. Our core insight that permeates our curriculum here is that the audience is really at the center of everything we do. Rather than producing an article, video or podcast and then doing everything we can to convince people to look at it, we try to listen to the audience and understand their needs first.
Q: Why did CUNY see the need for a specialized graduate degree in social journalism?
A: The first reason is that in talking to newsroom managers we were hearing that this was a skill set that was somewhat missing.
In 2014, when we started this program, it wasn’t as if social media was really a new skill set at that point, but newsrooms were starting to think about more sophisticated ways to engage and listen to audiences beyond just ‘we have a Twitter feed or Facebook page.’
As The New York Times and other news organizations become more reliant on subscription revenue rather than just advertising, it seemed fundamental to build trust and relationships with the people that we serve. We believe this improves journalism and is important for sustainability.
Q: What are some of the skills that students learn in the social journalism program (in addition to the traditional journalism curriculum)?
A: We talk a lot about listening and we even adopt from other fields, like anthropology, different ways that you can go out and better understand people’s frustrations and needs.
We teach design-thinking principles and borrow from that discipline… we teach metrics and outcomes classes, although we’re a little more focused on impact rather than page views. We teach some entrepreneurial and business skills so that students understand how that fits in…It isn’t just about social distribution and audience growth, but that is still an important skill so we do talk about that.
We’re trying to push beyond the usual suspects that get quoted the most often in news stories. My students are often working in marginalized communities that don’t appear that often in traditional news reports and learning what people are most concerned about. Then, we ask, what are some new tools and approaches we could use to better listen to the community? (One example) GroundSource is a text-based system where we can ask questions and people can respond via mobile device or text.
Q: What does success look like in this type of reporting?
A: We teach the whole spectrum. On one end is the basic page views and uniques, and that’s still important. The middle tier is “engagement light,” if you will – people are liking and sharing your stuff. And then really pushing into other forms: Have people increased their knowledge? Have they entered into a meaningful dialogue? Has the journalism actually changed something? By actually asking people, ‘has this been helpful or meaningful for you?’ We’re trying to look at the whole spectrum of metrics and push it more towards the impact side if we can.
Q: Are there any news organizations doing social/engagement journalism particularly well?
A: There are relatively few organizations where this is fully a part of their philosophy but there are a lot of examples of good projects. ProPublica does amazing crowdsourcing work; the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR), after a big investigative series, engage people with plays, shows and coloring books, and Chalkbeat in education journalism.
Q: How can professors incorporate social journalism into their classrooms?
A: I think there are a lot of ways. Even just having some discussions about it and doing assignments that require students not just to go out with a list of questions but trying something different, like setting up a listening post, or asking people for questions rather than answers.
I did a listening starter pack for journalists with exercises on community listening for students to begin with (Medium post is available here).
Q: Has the 2016 election generated more interest in social journalism?
A: It has been really interesting. A lot those things like, how can we get trust back, how can we listen better, that’s something that all of sudden people are talking about a lot more than they were before.
We’ve been talking for a long time about listening and engagement but they have suddenly become more relevant. CUNY was lucky enough to get a $14 million grant to work on issues revolving around trust.
I think it’s a challenging time, but an exciting time for the industry and I think more newsrooms will embrace this type of journalism.