Negotiating Change: Audience Engagement Editors as Newsroom Intermediaries
By Karin Assmann and Nicholas Diakopoulos
In an effort to address their newly empowered and increasingly fragmented audiences, many newsrooms are hiring editors tasked with audience engagement. This paper investigates this new genre of news workers, the scope of their activity and their roles within news organizations. Interviews with 22 audience engagement editors working in 20 U.S. news organizations show how they conceptualize journalism, journalistic practices and standards, and how engagement strategies fulfill important institutional functions. Audience engagement editors serve as multi-tasking intermediaries between reporters, editors, advertisers, and their audiences.
For many news organizations, the path to the digital future has been, and perhaps remains, long and painful. Audiences have embraced the tools that allow them to choose when and where they access news content with greater ease than have the organizations that produce the content. After the initial euphoria over the ability to publish online, the realization that audiences now expect their product for free, has hit home. Advertisers have taken their business online but face an increased use of ad-blockers (GoogleTrends, 2016). Social media platforms are alternative “one-stop-shop” venues of opportunity, with advantages for all stakeholders. They offer both advertisers and audiences personalized news feeds, with Facebook being the current platform of choice (O’Reilly, 2015).
It is as if audiences have stepped out from behind the curtain when consuming news content on social media. Passively, by surrendering user data with every scroll and click, and more actively by explicitly liking, sharing, or commenting, they have become measurable entities that mean potential revenue for advertisers, for social media platforms and for news organizations. Yet the latter are still trying to figure things out. News content consumers are simultaneously more elusive and more quantifiable, their behavior and preferences more transparent to the professional producers of such content who are looking for new ways to connect and to form a committed relationship with them. In many traditional newsrooms “digital first” is still contested and the divides between homepage and social, between users and producers and between newsrooms and audiences still exists (Batsell, 2015). Even in exclusively digital newsrooms, the convergence of reporters and their audiences is not a given. The space in between is where audience engagement editors reside.
This article presents a study of how news organizations employ audience engagement editors to help define and find their audiences and how those editors conceptualize engagement. Based on semi-structured interviews with 22 engagement editors in 20 U.S. newsrooms, this research explores how they position themselves and the implications of this activity for journalism practice.
The introduction of a new category of newsroom labor is complex—in this case involving socio-technical shifts as workers re-orient to technological innovations and to their audiences. What follows is a review of the literature addressing audience metrics as digital innovation as well as the diffusion, uptake, and implications of those metrics for journalism practice.
Audience Innovation: Metrics
The use of audience metrics has been a business decision driven by the necessity to generate revenue from otherwise free digitally distributed content. Digital news distribution brings the ability to measure if, how, and to what extent content is being consumed. News organizations’ adjustments to digital methods and output are supplemented by the nearly immediate feedback from the audience through metrics such as clicks, engaged time, and shares to various social networks broken out by different geographies or devices. Inevitably, audiences become quantifiable entities (Anderson, 2011) and journalists can continue to distance themselves from their readers and adjust newsroom practices to feed the metrics machine. The pitfalls of this strategy were enumerated in a Tow Center report (Petre, 2015), including journalists’ emotional responses to negative audience feedback delivered as analytics data, the exclusion of other aspects of the audience experience that could be tapped into, and the potential of other journalistic and audience needs that might coincide but are overlooked when “just the numbers” count. The visibility of audience approval through measurement tools displayed in real-time in the newsroom, has been shown to weaken journalists’ standing vis-á-vis advertisers. It empowers the audience (Tandoc, 2014) as audience attention (or lack thereof) to news content becomes visible to content producers. The measured audience is not invisible; it has a voice, albeit often heard only heavily mediated and constrained through the chosen units of quantification.
Although consumers’ voices online do enter into the news selection process, overall, they have been the voices of an imagined audience on social media, again compounding the divide between the actual audience and journalists’ false conceptualization of their audience. In the past, only television has had a system of reconstructing its audience’s attention and commercial engagement, whereas print news media constructed its own representations, based on market research, letters to the editors, and typifications of an imagined audience (Litt, 2012; Sumpter, 2000). Audience metrics, the digital innovation that enables real-time tracking of online engagement, and the audience’s ability to “talk back” digitally, put pressure on journalists to adapt.
Early evidence of a power struggle between journalists and their online audiences indicates that convergence and online news production and distribution have led to material institutional changes and are bound to transform news production processes and newsroom authority (Robinson (2007). This battle between journalists and participatory audiences over control is also an effort to redefine and reclaim boundaries and concepts of professionalism (Lewis, 2012). Adjusting to this new reality is a complicating factor in the adoption of the technological innovation.
Studies investigating heavy use and reliance on audience metrics in the newsroom have cautioned about the news selection processes leaning towards audience preference based on metrics. In a study of three online newsrooms (Tandoc & Vos, 2015), it was found that journalists were marketing the news to their audiences on social media and cautioned that this new dynamic between producers and consumers of the news may undermine editorial autonomy. The “shareability” of content on social media has become an increasingly important consideration in the selection of news, suggesting that share count metrics may be filtering back into editorial decision processes (Van Dijck, 2009).
The fear and suspicion that news values and selection are impacted by market forces in light of shrinking advertising revenue has been a recurring theme, particularly in the context of broadcast television (Cohen, 2002; Gans, 1979; McManus, 1994; Witschge & Nygren, 2009). The tension between selling media content to audiences and selling audiences to advertisers is being fueled by the availability of web analytics and the empowerment of the audience as co-gatekeepers of the news media that is being produced and offered (Tandoc, E. C., 2014).
Diffusion of Digital Innovation in Newsrooms
Digital technology has afforded both journalists and their audiences many advantages. Smaller equipment, wireless connectivity and mobile devices mean more flexibility, agility, speed, independence and choice and the ability for journalists and audiences to interact. Yet newsroom convergence, the integration of analog and digital newsrooms and media, continues to be framed as a crisis for the industry and as a threat to news (Robinson, 2011). Although journalists may be resistant to the new duties and skills that they must adopt, new cultures of news production are embraced when the benefits of their adoption are made apparent (Singer, 2004).
Innovation, new technologies, processes and ideas are adopted by organizations, social systems and by actors within institutions and those interacting with it at different rates. Acceptance varies particularly when these innovations involve acquiring new skills and a challenge to current professional norms and practices. The diffusion of such innovation in newsrooms depends on a number of factors, yet is favored by the introduction of change agents (Rogers, 2003). Digital innovation that leads to change in work practices and professional identities often requires some form of institutional intervention in order to take hold.
The diffusion of various clusters of innovation are part of the overall disruption in the news industry (Ekdale, Singer, Tully, & Harmsen (2015). Whereas the news outlets most readily accepted production technologies, audience measurement and analytics received a mixed response and the transformation of journalistic practices was met with more skepticism (Ekdale et al., 2015). This resistance to a shift in journalistic practices is perhaps the most important barrier to assimilation of innovation and new relationships in newsrooms, since it goes to the core of newsroom culture. Normalization processes and modifications or adjustments to innovations in the newsroom that support old routines and norms remain the preferred modi operandi among journalists (Paulussen, 2016). Adherence to routines, professional standards, and ethics has been shown to be crucial in soliciting cooperation from members of the newsroom and challenging them leads to the rejection of proposed change (Ryfe, 2009). Newsroom ethnographies have shed light on news-workers’ need for agency (perceived and real) as prerequisite for openness to the adoption of new technology (Usher, 2013), and Singer’s 12-year panel survey of news editors indicate that they are open to innovation and audience inclusion, as long as their own status as authoritative provider of news is maintained (Singer, 2015).
Newsroom Culture: Journalists Adjust
While journalists strive to maintain editorial independence and authority over news selection and gatekeeping, the affordances of digital media consumption empower audiences to compete with professional journalists, (Lewis, 2012). Yet as citizens cross the boundaries of news media production and consumption, these territories become more liquid and less clearly defined, giving citizens more options (Deuze, 2008). The “monitorial citizenship” (Deuze, 2008; Schudson, 1998) of audiences scanning the vast offerings of news choices, works hand-in-hand with professional journalists’ constructed definitions and self-perceptions of what it means to be a journalist. Older journalists, no longer as powerful and independent, are the losers of this new, liquid era and journalists’ future requires re-negotiating identity, tied to changing professional norms (Deuze, 2008, Kantola, 2016). “The borders of the journalistic profession have been lowered and weakened … The number of ‘actual’ journalists has fallen, while the number of new actors working in the public sphere has multiplied” (Kantola, 2016, p. 435). Deuze (2008) describes the array of occupational ideologies that have grown out of journalism practice as demarcations, constantly challenged by market necessities and by an audience that appears to be finding its own identity vis-à-vis the news media. Incorporating new technologies and having to open up to an open field of journalistic digital products and producers has led journalists to more clearly define the distinction between themselves and “others”, as well as to reassess and redefine the boundaries of their profession (Singer, 2011).
Journalists’ perception of the audience as interlopers was convincingly documented in a study analyzing the attitudes of editors who showed disdain for readers who wrote letters to the editor, deeming the letter writers “insane or ‘crazy’” (Wahl-Jorgensen, 2002) and not representative of the public. Others represent journalists as out of touch with their audiences (Deuze, 2008) or spending more time focusing on each other and their profession than on those for whom they produce content (Weischenberg, Malik, & Scholl, 2006). Tending to the audience, responding to reader comments and mail has been delegated to journalists as an added task, outside of their reporting and writing duties. Journalists consider this extra work, not relevant to their professional mission (Da Silva, 2012). Even in newsrooms with online comment sections and editors who more participatory audience input, criticism of audience comments not adhering to journalistic standards prevails (Robinson, 2010).
In response to the troubled relationship between journalists and their audiences, as evidenced by the decline in readership and revenue (Edmonds, 2016), locating and recruiting new users for their product is the top priority for news organizations. Journalism has become not just market-driven (Chomsky, 2002) but is attention-driven as well, with journalists competing for their audience’s attention and arguably, audiences doing the same (Fengler & Ruß-Mohl, 2008). Once found, they need to use the industry term, to be “engaged.”
The terms “engagement” as well as “social journalism” have become synonymous with efforts to connect journalists with their audiences, acknowledging that web metrics are always involved. At times, metrics are perceived as being too much of a good thing and has some news organizations searching for new strategies. Practicing “engaged journalism” was described by newsroom workers in more than two dozen newsrooms studied in 2012 and 2013, as hard labor that many felt forced to do (Batsell, 2015). Downsizing and the fear of losing their jobs, had reporters tweeting and communicating with their readers online, something they felt was not within their traditional reporting duties (Batsell, 2015). Petre (2015) suggests that audience inclusion was perceived as a burden by journalists but that they also appreciated and cared about metrics as measures of their success and as valuable insights.
The need for a more sophisticated and fitting set of metrics, more suited to the needs of newsrooms, was proposed in a study examining newsroom use of metrics, advancing the idea that no “one-size-fits-all” set of analytics exists for newsrooms (Cherubini & Nielsen, 2016). The wish to maintain control over what and how they produce the news, even in light of this rapprochement to their audience, remains a constant (Črnič & Vobič, 2013). Since Batsell’s (2015) study, most newsrooms have installed teams—in some cases budgets allow only for one team member—dedicated exclusively to what is referred to as “audience.” When Julia Haslanger interviewed these “social journalists” as she calls the journalists who work with audiences, she found a variety of job titles: “audience engagement editor,” “community engagement strategist,” “social media editor” as well as “audience development/growth” staff. She also encountered reporters, editors and digital producers fulfilling this job. She calls this a new “breed of journalism” requiring social skills and involving offline and online social events and communication skill, as well as the ability to recognize and make use of audience feedback (Haslanger, 2016).
The preceding studies have examined how “engagement” is sought by developing new, editorial metrics or by communicating with audiences and journalists in specific ways. What has not been explored in depth is how audience engagement editors are situated in the scope of journalism practice. Are they helping journalists maintain boundaries and control or are they softening the contours of the walls between producers, consumers, and marketers?
A Study of Audience Engagement Editors
The goal of this study is to situate audience engagement editors and their function in the news production ecology. What role do they play in the institutional re-arrangements that newsrooms are making to adapt to digital and audience innovations and how are they shaping journalism practice and the image of journalism? These considerations are addressed by the following research questions:
RQ1: What responsibilities and roles do audience engagement editors fulfill?
RQ2: How do audience engagement editors conceptualize journalism and their role in it?
RQ3: How do audience engagement editors define audience engagement?
Participants for this qualitative, interview-based study were selected using the search term “audience engagement editor” on the largest social network platform for professionals: LinkedIn (Premium). The filters applied limited the search to “audience engagement editor” as being the current job listed on the LinkedIn member’s profile, the location to the United States and to industry categories associated with the news media: “online media, writing and editing, newspapers, media production and publishing.” This yielded 55 results. Members working for specialized outlets were filtered out to avoid including editors whose engagement activities are geared toward specialized audiences (such as sport or fashion), rather than a general audience. Of the 30 members contacted, 17 agreed to be interviewed. Respondents were asked to recommend other audience engagement editors. By snowball sampling, recruitment was extended and allowed for inclusion of professionals who were not on LinkedIn with the exact title used, but who were known as such fell within the parameters of the job description. Since the position of audience engagement editors is rather new and dynamic, this opened the potential sample up to social structures and inside knowledge known only to the practitioners (Noy, 2008). This added five more participants but two recommendations were in the original list of interviewees. This resulted in a final sample of 11 women and 11 men ranging from 24 to 56 years, with the majority in their 30s. IRB approval was obtained before contacting potential participants.
The 22 participants worked for 20 different news organizations. In two cases, two participants worked for the same organization. One participant had previously occupied the job and was still performing some of the functions. In another case, both participants work for the same news organization, but one was in charge of audience engagement for the video content of the outlet. Five of the 20 outlets are part of the Gannett Corporation. The geographic spread skews slightly to the East Coast with news organizations in: California (one), Iowa (one), Montana (one), Arizona (one), Tennessee (one), Florida (two), South Carolina (one) Philadelphia (two), Maryland (one), New York (four), Massachusetts (one), Texas (one) and Washington, D.C. (two). One outlet, not listed here, is digital only. Participants worked for a mix of local and national outlets, one national radio outlet and one local investigative news organization.
The semi-structured interviews were conducted and recorded over the phone in April and September 2016. Prior to recording the call, the participants were asked if they consented to participating and to being recorded. Sixteen participants preferred that they and/or their outlet remain unnamed. Whether or not participants wanted to be named was not relevant to the job they were being interviewed about, but a reflection either of their status within their news organization or of the level of comfort they had in giving information that may be deemed proprietary. Given the large number of participants preferring anonymity all results below are presented without names in order to be consistent.
Interviews were transcribed and imported into the MaxQDA qualitative analysis software. General codes were aligned with the four main subject areas arising out of the questions asked: Engagement (definition and practices), Audience, Journalism, and Newsroom (including the job itself and newsroom practices related to audience engagement). Coding was done using an approach based on Glaser’s Constant Comparative methodology growing out of the Grounded Theory approach to qualitative analysis (Glaser, 1965). Sub-codes were added as each interview was read and re-read and trends and threads emerged. This approach does not allow for explicit theory testing, but arrives at an ethnographic description of the content out of which theories may emerge.
The 22 participants in this study cover a vast spectrum of job responsibilities. Some are team members in organizations that are purposefully crafting engagement strategies, while others oversee a fleet of engagement editors and participate in setting strategies themselves. A third group are the only ones within their organization charged with “doing engagement.”
A theme common to all was the impact of newsroom restructuring: re-organization, downsizing and a shortage of staff were mentioned by almost all of the interviewees when they spoke about how and why they became audience engagement editors. Their jobs had either been created as part of a recent re-organization or they had moved into the job because their original job, for example copy editor, had become obsolete. A number of comments, often framed humorously, dealt with how the hierarchies and structures as well as titles and the scope of their responsibilities were in constant flux. Several respondents were originally or still are opinion page editors and saw their move into or creation of the job “audience engagement editor” as a natural extension of op-ed work, as both involve a proximity to audiences that reporters had not typically experienced or sought.
Roles, Tools, and Tasks of Audience Engagement Editors
Audience engagement editors work in a place they refer to as “social.” Actually, all but two were physically located in the middle of the newsroom and spoke about how fortunate they were to be in a strategically important location that allowed them to decide as stories were being assigned and filed, which to “move to social,” meaning onto a social media platform such as Facebook. Although not all interviewees actually do this themselves, audience engagement on social media looks the same in all newsrooms: The editor or engagement team members post re-packaged, shorter versions of the newspaper’s (print or online) content on a social media platform. They fashion a headline that will be more searchable according to the search engine optimization (SEO) tool they use and in some cases they select a tidbit of content out of an article that they think is “more shareable” or “snackable” and post it on various social media platform accounts that belong to their “brand.”
Only a few participants actually pitch stories, yet all of them attend numerous editorial conferences to either find out what stories are being planned and what they could use and post on social media platforms or to make suggestions about additional content such as videos, photo galleries or legal documents. They all report back to the newsroom about how the content is performing along metrics, either through an email round up, a dashboard displayed in the newsroom or on monitors throughout the office. Several interviewees made it a point to emphasize that metrics were not the end, but the means, or guide toward an end: “The strategy is not about baiting the audience for metrics sake, but testing what does resonate, or dropping things that don’t and finding ways to make things work” (Audience Engagement Editor, national newspaper).
While the overall goal of engagement was always described in terms that denote personal contact, interactivity, service and community, the location where this is done is “on social.” Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Tumblr, Reddit and LinkedIn were the main platforms, with Facebook by far the most frequently used. Homepages were deemed less important in some cases, with the agreed upon wisdom that: “We have to go where the audiences are.” Related, comments on the homepages were treated as problematic by all participants. Some called the commenters “mean” and the comment section where “engagement … is about clean up.” Adding a Facebook widget, requiring identification of commenters, is deemed helpful, but Facebook as a platform makes curating easier and not as necessary because commenters tended to be better behaved.
Their efforts are always informed by metrics. The list of analytics tools used by the 22 participants and their newsrooms is long. Chartbeat, Omniture, Google Trends and Analytics, Facebook Insights as well as Twitter Analytics are the most frequently mentioned platforms. Every audience engagement editor mentioned using at least one analytics tool, with Chartbeat and Omniture and Google Analytics mentioned by half of the interviewees.
Whether the editors do it themselves or have a team they work with or oversee, posting journalistic content on social media is the core function of every audience engagement editor. All editors use metrics to learn how well content was being received and to monitor what topics are trending.
And then it just becomes like constantly monitoring throughout the day what trends and then something can start bubbling up at any moment, so I am a multi-tasker by nature and kind of just click around a lot of the day and so seeing what’s bubbling up and if we need to put something on ice that we’re doing because something has really strong potential to do well on our site and then doing that and then pitching more to editors and I think our newsroom is really flexible when good story opportunities come up so it’s a continuous process during the day. (Audience Engagement Editor for Video Content, national newspaper)
Only one engagement editor, working for a regional investigative reporting group, makes it a point not to share the results with reporters: “We don’t share Google Analytics per se and that’s just because … we don’t have any hard and fast policy against it, I personally don’t think it’s a good practice because I think it incentivizes weird things” (Audience Engagement Editor, investigative journalism group).
But despite the quantification and open availability of metrics on screens and dashboards, audience engagement editors are also engaging reporters in their effort to explain why it is necessary to follow the metrics of audience interaction with their journalism, no matter what these insights might bring. They are, in a sense, messengers of industry news:
One of the things that analytics makes very stark is that the things that we thought were introductory journalism—like crime reports, anything that’s a little bit tawdry—you can watch the needle move and we can literally now watch the needle move on traffic to the story and you know, you can let that lead you to disdain for the people who are you readers, who are your customers. But the fact of the matter is, I don’t think that digital readers prefer that kind of content any more or less. I think it was always there, now we can measure it. That’s where we kind of get people to get over themselves, is part of the challenge. (Audience Engagement Editor, large regional newspaper group in the South)
I serve as kind of the translator between my boss who is in charge of all the digital stuff and then the editors in the newsrooms to sort of say, no we are not just looking at this one metric, we’re looking at the bigger picture and we are trying to find people to read your content. (Audience Engagement Editor, large national newspaper)
Activities engagement editors mentioned as part of their job covered a broad spectrum from “updating news,” “re-writing” and “content distribution,” all activities serving the broader purpose of gathering, editing and disseminating news, to activities that were less geared toward the audience, but more toward journalists in the newsroom. More than half of the interviewees mentioned “building the journalists’ brands” and “building the brand,” as well as “contributing tools for engagement” and “deciding what works,” indicating that audience engagement editors, while performing editorial functions that bring information to audiences that they monitor and target, are also very focused on marketing. They help journalists learn how to “sell” themselves, how to create their own brands and how to place their content into the social news media ecosystem themselves.
Engagement editors with more seniority, who are alone or who work in smaller newsrooms are also responsible for speaking with vendors and for planning which digital tools will be used. Three newsrooms had received training by API and/or Poynter and/or the Knight Foundation. One is working with grant money from the latter to improve audience engagement efforts and yet another had received specific coaching from an engagement specialist.
Just over half of the participants spoke about the importance of building the news organization’s brand or reporters’ individual brands and that their job as audience engagement editors was to work towards this goal.
With certain newsroom journalists we’re trying to build up their brands and one of the ways that we do that is by making sure that we have a plan for promoting their new work whether it’s a podcast or a new mobile kind of news summary for millennials and we put a little bit of promotion money into making sure that that gets promoted in social media and reaches as many people as possible. (Audience Engagement Editor, Gannett publication)
The promotion of individual journalists, whether through paid promotion (although one interviewee had just noticed that it was visible to users when a promotion had been paid for on Facebook and decided not to do it anymore) or by publishing their stories on social media in a strategic way, was often explained as being for the greater (organizational) good:
How do we create high social performers in each newsroom who can then be on a wider community to share best practices so that we can continue to rollout, share those practices and figure out where the wins are and replicate them across the network? (Former Audience Engagement Editor, network TV, currently with a large national newspaper)
Other tools editors employed were online surveys, asking readers to send in pictures or comments or, although not as frequently, planning an RLE (real life event) that attracts attention. One editor has posted information on Facebook to start a story, that is, asked a question about something and, read the comments that came in, sourced and found a story there. It’s common practice to source stories using what they see, hear, and read on social media platforms. One editor has reached out to someone who posted information about her involvement in an incident, brought that person in and pitched the story to editors who wrote a story just about this woman.
Part of the engagement efforts clearly involved customer monitoring, not for journalistic purposes, such as sourcing, but in order to maximize distribution. There was a frequently stated awareness that all efforts served the ultimate purpose of making money through subscription or advertisement. One editor spoke about meeting with the marketing and advertisement side of his organization as often as he did with the editorial side. Another mentioned coordinating with the advertisement department when developing new editorial products. A third editor said that posting on Facebook used to be the responsibility of the marketing department before audience engagement editors were introduced on the newsroom side.
Several interviewees said that they wished that audience engagement was part of the conversation earlier than it is now. They would like to be able to involve audiences earlier, either as sources or in order to prime them. The ideal entry point for audience engagement editor involvement, one editor explained, was when the story is conceived. Currently, the earliest they intervene is during the meeting in which the story is discussed, reminding reporters and editors to think about engagement, which means delivering content for them to share online in order to promote the journalism.
Twenty-one of the 22 audience engagement editors interviewed responded affirmatively to the question about their own identity as a journalist. The single exception called himself “a facilitator of journalism” and: “I still sort of have the idea in my mind that the journalist is the one doing the digging and the one doing the writing so it’s a weird . . . it breaks my heart to say no” (Audience Engagement Editor, investigative non-profit)
On the other end of the spectrum, one participant called the question “somewhat of an insult” since it seemed obvious to her that her role was that of a journalist. Some of the responses revealed that being a journalist entailed having an input on news selection, storytelling, and the ability to pass editorial judgment:
Yes. I think part of that has to be a reflection of the content you produce and I think we’re definitely now getting to a point where I have more of an input on content that can live natively so whether we are trying to tell a discreet story on Facebook or Instagram, it requires a sense of editorial judgment. I think you have to be a journalist to get that through. (Engagement Strategist, national business magazine)
When defining journalism, the terms most frequently used were “gathering information,” “editorial judgment,” “help people understand,” “trust,” “writing” and “ethics.” Some responses expanded the traditional role of the journalist to include the search for an audience: “I think a big part of what journalists do now is try to figure out who our audience is and try to reach them” (Audience Engagement and Opinion Editor, West Coast daily newspaper). “I sell stories, I trade in news stories” (Editor for Internet and Audience, national daily newspaper).
For some respondents, particularly those who had come from the opinion section or from other parts of the newsroom or who had been reporters and writers, the defining criterion was that they knew and had practiced the craft. Being able to judge what was newsworthy for an audience they were seeking on social media platforms was often mentioned as an important part of their job. One respondent gave an example of a story she was making “snackable for social” by finding the nugget about five paragraphs down in the original article. It was a quote that spoke to millennials that became the headline on their social media accounts and generated the traffic that the original article had not. One sentiment echoed by many interviewees, was the responsibility to inform:
I don’t write or report ever and I still consider myself a journalist and I think it’s because what I see my job as is to get news and information to people and to learn news and information from people. That’s the point of everything that we’re doing here, whether you’re a reporter here or an audience editor or community, you focus primarily on building communities, like the whole reason we do any of it is because we think it’s important for people to be informed about their world and for us to be able to have the best information that we can to provide that to people and so you know, that’s journalistic. (Audience Engagement Editor, national newspaper)
The theme of sharing journalistic practices, by exposing and spreading the reporters’ journalism on a social media platform, was repeated throughout. In fact, the goal in all newsrooms, with some much closer to it than others, was to educate the reporters so that they could one day be their own audience engagement editors. One newsroom with a particularly large staff tasked with engagement, has divided their teams up: The participant interviewed was on the “embedded audience team” that interacted with individual reporters and focused on particular projects most closely. While others strategize or handle specific social media platforms that they became specialized in, these editors are hands-on coaches for reporters and editors, akin to personal trainers. The participant describes the work this team does as follows:
So you might work with one reporter and they are really comfortable on Facebook, so you might say with that reporter, “Okay, we’re going to go all in on the Facebook platform for you, let’s talk about Facebook live, let’s talk about how you are using followers, let’s talk about how you are using comments and we’re going to go 100% in on building your community on this platform.” (Audience Engagement Editor, national daily newspaper)
Coaching, training reporters and editors literally through specialized programs or in one-on-one meetings was part of the duties of most every editor interviewed. That not every reporter was on board all the time was mentioned as well:
I think there’s still a lot of you know, people here that like to do what they are interested in and they think clickbait and they think cat videos and they think Kardashians and they don’t want any part of it. It has taken me kind of two years to figure this out, but the conversations I am starting to have now or trying to have now is how did it impact people, did they stay on your story for a long time, not just how many pages did it get or how many users looked at it but maybe 1,000 people read it but those thousand people stayed on for five minutes so … that’s awesome. (Audience Engagement Editor, only person tasked with engagement)
Defining and Engaging Audiences
Although part of their title, the term all had the most difficulty defining was the term “engagement.” It was most commonly described with words like “relationships,” “listening,” “conversation,” “loyalty” and “community” and as “using feedback from audience,” “involving the audience,” “answer questions.” One editor distinguished between looking at engagement “through the growth editor filter” and looking at “true engagement.” The growth editor was interested in clicks, whereas her view of “true engagement” involved something she called “conversational journalism”: “And that is having a one-to-one discussion maybe on messaging apps and bots or whatever or a many-way with discussion in communities, on comments or whatever, but I think it’s really truly having a discussion with our audience” (Audience Engagement Editor, national newspaper).
Five of the editors interviewed worked for news organizations that are part of the Gannett group and all interviewees in this group spoke about engagement and their audiences in terms that aligned with Picasso, the framework that their parent company has been implementing. “Audience targeting,” “metrics,” “community connectors” and “marketing” are described as the pillars for news work.
When participants were asked to define audiences in general and theirs in particular answers ranged from “people” to “anyone,” but often circled around audience members as sources. Some interviewees spoke about strategically priming social media users by asking them questions or by soliciting information, both to generate curiosity about a topic and to learn of any useful sources in that particular community. In general, the respondents were not particularly choosy but also very general and all-inclusive, to the point of being unspecific: “(Our audience) is primarily determined by our print circulation area, the areas where we circulate and anybody in there that’s interested in the kind of things that we have covered” (Audience Engagement Editor, newspaper group in the South).
Anyone with a digital device … don’t just write for the people who are at your city council meeting or who live in that town, write for Google and I don’t mean Google bots, I mean anyone with access to a phone or a computer. Anyone who is searching for a thing can find your thing, if that’s their search. (Audience and Opinion Editor, West Coast daily newspaper)
“This is a question we ask ourselves every day. Right now we are very interested in our local audience” (Audience Engagement Editor, newspaper group in a large metropolitan area).
Others defined their audience strictly along demographics: gender, location, platform and took a more pragmatic approach: “Well, we have statistics … as far as demographics go. Online versus the radio our audience is younger and female, predominately more female than men. Younger than our radio audience” (Audience Engagement Editor, radio network).
Four interviewees mentioned that they had “personas,” archetypical readers or audience members that had been determined as target consumers for whom they were producing content. One editor reported that photographs of different personas were hanging on the newsroom wall.
Audience engagement editors, in fulfilling their roles and responsibilities, are beholden to more than one master. All interviewees spoke about ways in which they serve the journalists in their newsrooms. They inform research and help to promote journalists’ content and themselves, their “brands” and credibility as journalists. They serve the audience by providing a link into the newsroom and bringing news topics to the attention of journalists. On the other hand, they serve their news organization, specifically the marketing department, by monitoring and measuring customer behavior.
Although praised as a form of rapprochement and reconciliation between the alienated camps inside and outside of the newsroom, as a return to local and social reporting, much of what is happening is a computer-mediated image campaign. The language of marketing, very present in the conversations with 22 audience engagement editors, specifically the term “branding,” indicates that the job of audience engagement editor is to facilitate presentation and impression management of journalists and of the organizational brand.
Audience interaction is being performed via web metrics that are being translated to journalists as impactful and working towards a greater goal. Both the technological innovation (web metrics) and the innovation in newsroom practice (tending to the audience) is being mediated by news workers who self-identify and present as journalists. They are change agents who possess enough of the characteristics of the journalists they are coaching and, in the cases examined, have internalized their continued belonging to this professional group so much so that they are convincing representatives of the group they are promoting. Monetizing engagement, that is, bringing in revenue if more people read their news product, is never explicitly talked about, but it is the implicit reality behind the jargon of “engagement,” of “listening” and caring.
Calling the definitions of “engagement” rhetorical would be an overstatement, yet they are effective in promoting the image that news organizations are trying—and must—sell in order to remain viable. It is the image of a partner to an audience that is increasingly being sought in small, local communities. During events and in conversations on social media commenting threads, audience engagement editors explain the journalism that their organizations are producing. Just as they are “selling” engagement to the journalists, they are “selling” journalism to audiences. By doing so they are allowing journalists to maintain the professional boundary, since all of this is being done in the name of journalism.
They facilitate journalists’ adoption of innovation in technology and practice. Search engine optimization, analytics dashboards and other tools, are explained and introduced by audience engagement editors, along with an explanation of the virtues of using these tools, even if skeptical journalists might find them distracting to their mission. A reminder that they and the strategies employed to engage audiences are “for the greater good” of the organization, as well as for the promotion of journalism in general and their stories in particular, serves as an effective strategy to affect institutional change.
Conclusion and Future Work
This study set out to situate audience engagement editors, representing a new form of newsroom labor, into the ecology of journalistic practice. Listening to the men and women who are doing this job reveals the thin line they are toeing between the world of marketing and the world of journalism. Fueled by the pressures of online media’s attention economy, institutional change is happening in newsrooms. Audience engagement editors are working in the domain in which this economy resides: on social media platforms and on their outlet’s website. It is where traditional journalism and their new audiences meet and provides audience engagement editors a unique position to help define journalism to both sides of this equation.
This study has shown that audience engagement editors serve as liaisons to their respective marketing departments by delivering and explaining audience metrics. Their marketing efforts take on properties of public relations: They indirectly sell the idea of journalism as well as content directly to audiences and they sell the audience’s voices to journalists. Case studies that take a closer look at this dynamic would add to an understanding of the influence that both narratives have on journalists and audiences alike. How great a role do audience engagement editors have in shaping the opinion and choices of audiences?
Additional research is also needed to understand how the divide between editorial autonomy and marketing strategies, invoked for the cause of journalism and its survival is holding up in newsrooms that have mission statements in which economic survival, journalistic norms, and marketing principles appear on the same page. Finally, further research into the impact on news selection and output in newsrooms with active audience engagement teams is called for. A study similar to this report, focusing instead on the reporters and editors that work with audience engagement editors, would deliver important insights into the impact they are having on the practice of journalism. In an era in which engagement with the news and journalists’ engagement with their audiences is recognized as being crucial to fostering an informed and politically enabled public, answering such questions is vital to understanding the evolution of journalistic practice in the online digital news sphere.
As newsrooms integrate audience engagement strategies and editors into their news production routines, professional boundaries are being redefined. Journalists, as this study has shown, are adopting new processes and routines beyond traditional reporting. Journalists can no longer be content to merely tell news stories, they must now also promote and “sell” them too.
Karin Assmann is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism. She is also the U.S. correspondent for the German news magazine Spiegel TV. Her research focuses on newsroom practice and management and audience engagement.
Nicholas Diakopoulos is an Assistant Professor at the University of Maryland, College Park Philip Merrill College of Journalism with courtesy appointments in the College of Information Studies and Department of Computer Science. He is Director of the Computational Journalism Lab at UMD, a member of the Human-Computer Interaction Lab (HCIL) at UMD, a Tow Fellow at Columbia University School of Journalism, and Associate Professor II at the University of Bergen Department of Information Science and Media Studies.
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