REPORTR.NET: Lessons on how to engage with audiences

Jim Brady, former editor of and, set the tone for a professional panel on engaging the audience at #ISOJ by saying they were going to stick to time and leave plenty of time for questions.

First up was Espen Egil Hansen, editor-in-chief of VG Multimedia, Norway. He started by stating that he tells his journalists to spend a minimum of 10% of time interacting and engaging with readers.

Three-quarters of Norwegians visited the site in February, with 87% coming to the homepage, compared to only 4% from Google.

VG’s approach has been to figure out how we can help the readers help each other.

Hansen highlighted how last year during the travel disruption caused by the Icelandic volcano, a developer created a quick and dirty site to help people help each other get home.

In return, readers sent in stories and pictures about their journey home.

VG also has a tool that lets a select group of readers correct typos. Five-thousand readers applied to correct typos and 400 were selected to fix typos on the site. 17,000 typos were reported last year, said Hansen.

Another example cited by Hansen was the paper’s response to the disaster in Japan. VG set up a paper with a live feed of Japanese TV, but also updates from journalists and from readers.

He also showed how during the H1N1 flu, VG created a wiki site inviting users to let others know where they could get a flu shot.

Hansen said the paper had progressed from a monologue to dialogue. But today, there is another viral layer which taps into social media.

He said VG wanted to be something in the middle between traditional journalism and social media.

Washington Post’s approach to Twitter

Amanda Zamora, social media and engagement editor, The Washington Post, described her job as taking the “earmuff off this sleeping giant.”

She talked about how reporters are using social platforms such as Twitter as a news gathering tool.

“We’ve learned a lot from Twitter,” she said, for example by using the hashtag to actively frame the conversation.

She outlined the approach as call, response, reward.

The sign of success is if you issue a call, you get a response, said Zamora, not your number of followers. People who take part are rewarded by bring that content back into the Washington Post site.

The paper uses Google forms as a way for people to send in what they know on specific stories, for example on power outages in Washington, D.C.

One of the ways the Post is experimenting is using Intersect, which can blend accounts from both journalists and readers. This is how, Zamora said, the paper is aiming to transform the social conversations we collect into a narrative.

New York Times and social media

Jennifer Preston spoke of her experience as the former social media editor from The New York Times.

She sees value in Twitter as a tool for reporting, but also for real-time publishing and curating.

But it can also involve users in the creative process, helping to engage with community, she said.

Preston said it was a very big step for the Times, which has many layers of editing, to put content from journalists and users in real-time.

One example she cited was Nicholas Kristof’s posts to Facebook covering the uprisings in the Middle East.

Preston showed some ways in which the Times was trying out new ways of engaging with readers. One example she showed was A Moment in Time, asking people to take a photo at a specific time and date.

When the Times did this last year, it was inundated with photos. But rather than wait for the paper to publish the photos, readers also shared their photos on Flickr.

Facebook, said Preston, provides an enormous opportunity to seed communities. She showed the Civil War Facebook page from the Times.

Lessons from TBD

Jim Brady rounded off the session by sharing his experiences at TBD.

He said that users need to be involved in journalism, not just allowed to upload pet photos. Engagement has to be a two-way street.

He said TBD used Twitter and Facebook to gather news, not just disseminate news. His staff also used Foursquare to find people in a specific location.

When it came to sending out news links, TBD encouraged staff to have a very conversational tone on Twitter.

By January 2011, TBD had 1.5 million unique visitors. “We were pretty confident the model was working editorially,” said Brady.

He urged people not to see TBD as a failure, saying it was on the right track before the owners abandoned the original vision behind the site.

ISOJ 2011: Jim Brady, “Engaging Communities with the news @ TBD”, from Knight Center on Vimeo.