How audience engagement editors are guiding online discussions

Photo Illustration by CJR

Before many Americans had awoken on August 26, the day had already proven itself heavy, both in news and sentiment. At 6:45am EST, at a shopping plaza near Roanoke, Virginia, a gunman opened fire on live TV, killing two young journalists who worked for WDBJ, the local CBS affiliate. The source they were interviewing at the time, a community leader, was also injured. The news rippled across the country as the assailant, a former station employee, led police on an hours-long chase. By the time state police caught up to the attacker, he had fatally shot himself in the head.

Through it all, a new kind of journalist was on the story.

Along with traditional reporters and editors, The Wall Street Journal’s nearly two-year-old audience engagement team fueled the outlet’s coverage of the slayings. The team simultaneously verified information, promoted Journal articles and social media posts on the killings, managed reader comments, and shuffled online feedback and analytics to their colleagues. “The audience team is just like your shoe-leather reporters,” says Carla Zanoni, head of emerging media and audience development, “in that they feel like this is what they’ve been training for.”

The shocking event joined what was already a long week of marathon Journal reporting on wobbling global stock markets. The events fused, sparking frenzied reporting throughout the news industry. Updates dribbled out to reporters, who raced to inform online readers. That couldn’t have happened—at least not well—without the increasingly important audience engagement staffers who inhabit newsrooms across the country.

“Audience engagement editor” is a job that didn’t exist until a few years ago. But now those with the title wield heavy influence in the industry, shaping both how journalists cover events and how readers consume news.

They are the children of the copy editor, the public editor, and the paperboy. Instead of grammar and style, this new breed of editor crafts online tone and relationships with readers. Web traffic and, if subtly, advertising dollars depend on their work. Together, their efforts help tear down a perception that the media is declarative and deaf to how readers interact with its work.

 

Legacy in the lead

The Journal’s international pool of 15 engagement journalists, including nine in its Midtown Manhattan headquarters, works 24 hours a day. Every story on WSJ.com is open to reader comments, all of which must be submitted under a user’s full name and meet ethical standards on par with those of the newspaper itself.

The consequence of this framework is that despite the attention commanded by two huge breaking stories that final week in August, the team still had to oversee the rest of the Journal’s online presence—right down to a sentimental feature, “Goodbye to a Family Summer House,” which had racked up 86 on-site comments since it went live the previous evening. 

The word “journalist” calls to mind images of reporters battling to ask questions during press gaggles or probing sources for a lead. The job of an audience engagement editor, however, seems neither obvious nor romantic. Journalists pound keyboards for copy, not the ambiguous idea of “community building,” a hallmark of audience engagement. But the profession’s wide adoption of engagement staffers suggests they’re equally vital to the digital newsroom as traditional journalists, as noted last month by MediaShift. They elevate a publication’s online persona by creating Web-friendly headlines, prioritizing when and on which social platforms stories are posted, and patrolling notoriously dicey comment sections.

The job requires guts. Guts to develop and test new ideas in an environment bereft of a catchall formula for victory. Guts to spar with hardened news editors who don’t always appreciate a break from the journalism they know. Guts to subjectively govern branded digital communities, tiptoeing between a publication’s principles and perceived censorship.

 

The audience team is just like your shoe-leather reporters in that they feel like this is what they’ve been training for.

 

The bigotry and aggression plaguing many comment threads highlight the struggles and shortcomings of this brand of journalist. It’s hard to gauge success. Page views, civility, and any number of criteria play a role (The Guardian, for instance, sometimes considers news tips a success, while the WSJ values “high-minded” conversation in its Facebook threads). But studies and experts say news outlets can no longer flourish without devising some kind of approach to their online communities—even if that approach is desertion.

The Wall Street Journal and its chief rival, The New York Times, have two invaluable assets in the quest for innovation: resources and direction. They also both have distinguished reputations to uphold. That confluence has reared sizeable audience engagement squads and stern but thoughtful moderation policies. On both sites, the most thought-provoking posts receive accolades, an incentive for readers to write compelling replies. The result? Largely intelligent and courteous dialogue. “Commenting, to me, is true democracy of thought and a huge change in the way that we do journalism,” the Journal’s Zanoni says. 

Despite their similarities, the Times’ comment desk runs its digital colonies differently than the Journal’s. Only certain articles—about 25 news stories and opinion pieces, not including blog posts and magazine articles—become open to discussion each day. All commenting on a given article eventually comes to a halt. A team of 14 people and, to a lesser extent, algorithms pre-moderate comments, meaning a post doesn’t appear on the site before passing human eyes, says Bassey Etim, lead community manager. Community staffers, most of whom are part-time, work schedules that ensure someone is almost always available to remove weak or offensive comments and promote insightful remarks.

The Gray Lady’s digital readership is accustomed to heavy-handed moderation, Etim says, which makes it easier for his community to accept subjective moderation decisions. A solid post history can earn a reader the title of “verified commenter,” lifting the pre-moderation rule. But the Times doesn’t ban commenters with poor track records. “You are judged for every single individual comment you make,” Etim notes. “You are not judged for your history.”

Both approaches from the New York journalism giants are grounded in journalistic and economic ideals. They are geared more toward curation than moderation, in the hope that high-quality conversations will strengthen stories and ultimately nudge visitors to spend more time on the site or buy a subscription. There’s little science to help guide them, but the industry is beginning to establish broad ideas of best practices.

 

Rewards to gain

The Engaging News Project, based out of the University of Texas at Austin, researches how news outlets can connect with readers online in “commercially viable and democratically beneficial ways.” In a recent study of one TV station’s Facebook posts, the group found that incivility dropped by 15 percent when a reporter—an individual, not a brand—joined the discussion. “I don’t believe that there probably is a cure-all for comment sections,” says Talia Stroud, the project’s director. “This is at least a starting point for experimenting.” A gesture as small as mentioning a commenter by name goes far, she adds, as well as trying to engage in thoughtful discourse rather than simply disagreeing with a commenter’s views. Therefore, responses from journalists such as “You’re wrong” unsurprisingly fare worse than, say, “Here’s something else to consider” or “What’s your opinion on this?” (Note: The Engaging News Project and CJR’s United States Project both receive support from the Democracy Fund.)

News outlets have a lot to gain from these exchanges, whether they take place below a story or on social media. A high-minded conversation, after all, is good content, and impassioned virtual communities can lead to good journalism. 

That was a guiding principle of an effort recently undertaken by The Guardian. In June, the newspaper launched “The Counted,” a data-driven effort to tally the number of deaths by US police in 2015. There’s no official record of these scattered and sometimes-hushed incidents, which is what motivated the newspaper to build an online community—in the hopes that it would become a farm for tips. Mary Hamilton, the publication’s US audience director, says traditional reporters and her engagement team first entered conversations among activists on social media, securing enough legitimacy to form a space of their own. As of this week, the project’s Facebook page boasted more than 15,000 “likes.”

 

Commenting is true democracy of thought and a huge change in the way that we do journalism.

 

Subsequent leads have provided crucial details, corrections, and, in some cases, reflections from family members of the slain. But “The Counted” doesn’t end there. Investigative journalists expand on tips—thus far, they’ve churned out coverage on 823 killings in a detailed database, developing richer stories on individual cases and pointing to larger trends. “It’s become pretty clear that without building a living community of people who care about the issue around the journalism, the journalism would be much less successful,” Hamilton says.

Audience engagement staffers monitor and guide group discussions. Despite the divisive and at times racial nature of the topic, discussions are usually respectful. The relatively modest number of active participants boosts civility and the quality of news tips. Contributions from the small number of readers who comment, Hamilton adds, sometimes translate to big traffic numbers. That’s a plus for the editorial mission and the company’s coffers.

Both digital trailblazers and researchers consider the comment section a possible moneymaker—mostly, they say, because in-house forums prevent ad dollars from being lost to social media. Some have theorized that strategy may have something to do with Gawker Media Founder and CEO Nick Denton pouring millions of dollars into Kinja, the blogging empire’s cross-site commenting platform. (Denton, meanwhile, refers to Kinja’s potential financial success as “an afterthought.”) Among other features, Kinja allows users to start sub-story discussions, the most vibrant of which claim the top spot in each comment section. Each user’s post history is also archived on a separate profile, acting as a standalone blog. This setup, Denton has preached, is meant to level the playing field of writers and readers. Gawker has even hired from its roster of Kinja contributors.

Of course, Denton acknowledges the platform’s slow path to maturity. Abrasive content has infiltrated Kinja, such as a series of rape GIFs that caused an outcry from Jezebel writers last year. But Kinja is perhaps the most impressive effort by a media company to squeeze substantial content—and money—from its commenters. Third-party publishers like Playboy have even hosted content on Kinja, which also supports native ads. If nothing else, the thinking behind the platform signals that publishers believe they can harvest substantial content and cash from comment sections.

 

What’s at stake

The dominant narrative surrounding audience engagement sometimes seems to lament the death of the comment section. Last fall, CNN incorrectly declared that “online comments are being phased out,” leaning on only a handful of examples. Talia Stroud of the Engaging News Project maintains that her analysis of 150 news websites, along with additional research, shows that most outlets plan to keep their comment sections.

Still, the end-times narrative continues with each high-profile shuttering. This summer, major tech sites The Verge, The Daily Dot, and The Daily Beast suspended in-article commenting, prompting waves of media coverage. Only The Verge pointed to vulgarity and vitriol as the driver.

For The Daily Dot, the move hinged on reader habits.

“We’re living in the Facebook world, where the engagement on a Facebook post is probably going to be more meaningful for our reach and our traffic and our communities,” says Matt Silverman, director of audience engagement. That shift has occurred in many newsrooms. NPR’s Code Switch blog, for example, focused much of its energy on on-site discourse just two years ago. But today its engagement almost exclusively takes place on social media. The staff sometimes even considers stimulating Twitter chats to be an end, rather than a means to additional reporting. The Dot, too, publishes on “visual apps” like Instagram and Snapchat without the expectation of drawing new visitors to its website. The Wall Street Journal runs Facebook groups devoted to expatriates and the newspaper’s book club, each boasting more than 5,000 members.

Equally important to adaptability is the smart use of resources. The Daily Dot upped the size of its engagement team from two to six employees this year, a good indicator of its dedication to this arm of journalism. Silverman hopes to hire additional employees to manage the site’s growing well of stories.

The Dot’s social media accounts—along with their millions of followers—are another major resource that must be well-managed. In late July, Democratic presidential contender Bernie Sanders planned to livestream a speech to more than 3,300 households. The Dot’s write-up was “perfect” for readers of its politics vertical, Silverman says, but he and his colleagues were unsure if it would grab its mainstream audience. Stories on Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, had resonated with the news organization’s readership in the past, though the attention was likely owed to the US senator’s aptitude for bold quotes. It’s more prudent to use that highly visible Facebook slot to highlight an article with greater mass appeal, a move thoroughly analyzed by the site’s editorial and engagement teams. “Does it take the main space? What is performing well for our competitors, too? It’s like a rolling conversation,” Silverman adds, “and it’s very time-consuming.”

 

You are judged for every single individual comment you make. You are not judged for your history.

 

As much as engagement editors downplay the presence of distasteful comments, sexist and racist grime continues to stain news sites. The reputation of Philly.com, the online home of The Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News, suffered so badly from its commenters that it became the subject of a Philadelphia Magazine story in 2013. Discussion began to improve through a partnership with the Engaging News Project and the hiring of an audience engagement director.

When the director, Erica Palan, came on board last fall, she launched an experiment to involve journalists throughout the newsroom in comment moderation. Twenty volunteers signed on to the project, a number that has now grown to more than 30. That move echoes a trend gaining traction in the industry: Conventional reporters and editors are jumping into the conversation. Readers must also now click to read comments, an opt-in policy that even Philly.com’s biggest critic has acknowledged as a crucial step forward.

Popular opinion states that audience engagement needs to infect entire newsrooms, not just digital desks. Jake Batsell, a veteran print journalist and the author of Engaged Journalism: Connecting with Digitally Empowered News Audiences, says the “untended garden approach” still used by many news organizations simply doesn’t work. With that approach, comment sections are “probably going to devolve into some sort of uncivil free-for-all,” he says, “where a story about the weather has comments that become a nasty debate about immigration.” Publications lacking a concrete strategy or the muscle to rein in comment sections are better off killing them, he says. (Indeed, CJR no longer allows on-site comments, but it does have a full-time digital media editor who runs the publication’s social presence, writes headlines, and, in general, is instrumental to the journalism found here.)

Still, that advice is at odds with the thinking in the country’s most prestigious newsrooms and hulking media companies. Batsell visited more than 25 newsrooms and interviewed 100 journalists for his book, which was published in February by Columbia University Press. Some of those operations had convinced print-smitten reporters to take active roles in comment sections. A pivotal argument used to sway them? Reader feedback, Batsell notes, can guide journalists to new angles and stories they might otherwise overlook. (Note: Batsell has written for CJR.)

Comment sections are never going to be perfect bastions of thoughtful free speech. Full-name and Facebook sign-in policies and hyper-coordinated moderation blitzes can only do so much to starve the trolls—and to refine the collective reputation of spaces long mocked for their stupidity and hostility. But if volunteer moderators can carve out strongholds for witty discussion elsewhere online—even in some areas of the media-battered website Reddit—why can’t news outlets do the same with paid staffs? They can. It’s a question of whether they care to make the monetary and philosophical investment.

“We want those readers who are really engaged with our journalism to be having a high-level, long-term, and weighty conversation with us,” says Zanoni of The Wall Street Journal. That mindset is bubbling through the profession, and for reasons beyond a potential rise in Web traffic. Journalism is lucky that the fruit of its tree now falls on its lawn. The huge task of gathering and sorting that fruit belongs to everyone in the newsroom, but especially to the audience engagement teams on the front lines.

Jack Murtha is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow him on Twitter at @JackMurtha Tags: , ,