Premium offerings for reader engagement look an awful lot like news literacy

Readers connect with journalists by paying for behind-the-scenes content

Last week, Slate published a piece [$] called “Skip the Commentary, Find the Reporting,” by its national correspondent, William Saletan, on how he keeps up with news from Israel and Gaza. It gave a rundown of news available in English from various perspectives, as well as a round-up of what Slate has published on the topic lately. Saletan wrote, “This is how I read the news. Skip the commentary, find the reporting. Expect bias, recognize it, factor it into your reading, and look for other sources that round out the picture. Trust no one. Avoid echo chambers. Keep all your assumptions open to review. You’ll never fully understand anything, but you’ll always be learning.”

The piece is only accessible to members of Slate Plus, an added-benefit membership program for Slate’s most loyal (paying) fans that launched in April. These include perks that make reading and listening smoother, like single-page articles and ad-free podcasts. It also includes brand paraphernalia and unique access to Slate writers and editors in the form of, for example, a roundup of former EIC David Plotz’s favorite Slate ledes, a roundtable of editors discussing heads, deks, and clickbait, and the Twitter accounts followed by the most Slate staffers.

While not all news readers want this type of insider content, says Slate editor in chief Julia Turner, “There definitely is a set of readers and listeners who are curious about how the news is made and want to understand how journalism is produced.”

April also saw the launch of Times Premier, the new paid digital products program from The New York Times, which includes Times Insider [$], developed in response to interest from engaged subscribers about how its journalists work and who the people behind the bylines are, Director of Corporate Communications Linda Zebian explains. Recent Insider posts, Zebian adds, have included a piece by Rod Nordland from Baghdad on how to report in Iraq, a Q&A with national reporter Tanzina Vega on her approach to covering the race beat, a piece by Cairo correspondent David Kirkpatrick on what he carries with him while on assignment in the Middle East, and a piece by videographer Ben Solomon on what makes good video and how he has navigated dangerous situations in the Middle East and Africa.

And similarly, over at Times Opinion, which has been revamped as a standalone paid app, editor Andy Rosenthal and his team are experimenting with ways to encourage direct engagement with writers. Recent ones include having columnists respond to reader questions, having op-ed writers respond to commenters, and highlighting reader comments. A particularly good example of breaking down the news is this piece from Nicholas Kristof responding to a request from editorial assistant Natalie Kitroeff to look back on his reporting from Tiananmen Square and reflect on what he might do differently now, and how much China has changed.

This behind-the-scenes access to journalists, their reporting secrets, and their reading habits sounds a lot like what goes on in most journalism classes—journalism professors (many of whom are working journalists) regularly share tips for reporting in the field, how they broke stories, and which news sources to pay attention to. But online, these anecdotes are being offered to consumers rather than aspiring creators of journalism. And while it might be a novel revenue model (successful or not), it’s a tried and true news literacy model.

News literacy has been formalized (largely by Stony Brook University and the News Literacy Project) as the skill of verifying and critically consuming news and information. Its pioneers are seasoned journalists who have created curricula to help readers understand what goes into reporting a story, so they too can think like journalists while attempting to navigate the torrential amounts information online. Times Insider pieces, for instance, sound a lot like NLP’s lesson in which McClatchy Middle East Bureau Chief Nancy Youssef skypes in from Beirut for a Q&A with high school students (here’s an account from a student at Edward R. Murrow High School in Brooklyn). And while they might choose to simply call it a more robust reader engagement experience, it seems that news organizations have tapped into a hunger for news literacy—and are packaging it as a premium product.

This engagement is precisely what the News Literacy Project seeks to provide for its middle and high school students by bringing journalists into their classrooms. And it has developed a network of 25 media partners and 225 “journalist fellows”—working journalists who volunteer their time with students—to get it done.

“We feel that no one is better positioned as an ambassador to news literacy than journalists,” says Peter Adams, senior vice president for educational programs at NLP. Lessons include everything from the ethics of photojournalism to press freedom issues abroad to the difference between investigative and daily journalism.

A popular one that has been taught and contributed to by several journalists is the Page One meeting, developed in collaboration with Geraldine Baum, former New York and Paris bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, with subsequent tweaks by Samantha Henig, digital editor at The New York Times Magazine, and Jessica Firger, currently a health reporter at CBS News. Students learn how editorial teams decide what the front page of the paper looks like by comparing and discussing several front pages—say, of a national paper, a trade publication, a local paper, a tabloid, and a digital homepage—and then simulating their own Page One meeting in class.

And behold, Times Insider recently published a piece on how the front page is drawn up each day, and a special on how A1 was made the day the plane was shot down over Ukraine and the Israeli ground troops entered Gaza.

“People love all the behind-the-scenes stuff,” says Rosenthal, the Times editorial page editor. “There’s an access feeling you can get from that… so the idea of interacting with our readers, what they get out of it is a) a sense of personal connection, b) a sense that they are being listened to, and c) the possibility that they are being taken seriously.”

While Rosenthal is speaking of engagement over opinion pieces at the Times, the sentiment is visible across organizations. A July 21 Slate Plus Q&A with Turner, for instance, features reader requests for coverage improvements alongside praise, congratulations (Turner just took the top job), and personal questions from Slate fans. One reader, a 55-year-old high school teacher from Ohio, wrote:

I love Slate, but you have no reporter from the Midwest to report on what goes on in the middle of the country, which is often different from what happens on the coasts. (Same goes for the Deep South, the Extreme North, the Southwest, and Appalachia.) I’d love to see reports from those areas from time to time; for example, the Southwest continues to have water/drought issues—let’s hear what’s going on with fixing those problems.

She also requested more focused articles on the details of lived poverty from around the country, to which Turner responded positively, promising to consider deeper coverage, pointing to a range of regular contributors who do indeed live in Ohio, Colorado, Wisconsin, and Iowa, and linking to Slate series on drought in the Southwest.

While the impetus for these new premium offerings is revenue, and they don’t purport to be an educational service, they are indeed fulfilling a desire for news literacy-type information, and they end up being learning opportunities—though exclusively available to those who can pay for them.

“We get requests on a fairly regular basis to create content or do programming for adults,” says Adams. “It’s just not our mission.” Stony Brook focuses on university-aged students and NLP focuses on middle and high schoolers. News literacy resources for adults are largely limited to online offerings such as NLP’s learn channel or Stony Brook’s digital resource center and teacher training materials. News literacy projects like Voice of San Diego’s, which is aimed at adults, are mainly focused on digital literacy and community engagement for underserved residents, and they don’t seek or achieve wider audiences. The closest free space for this type of engagement with journalists is probably Reddit’s IAmAs with journalists, but they’re not formalized, and familiarity with Reddit requires a baseline of media literacy.

All this means that there aren’t many avenues for digital news literacy for adults—but there is a desire for it, whether we call it news literacy or not. And while these exchanges might simply be created as a reward for fandom in the form of insider access, premium membership is a space news organizations are in fact harnessing (and dedicating budget and resources) to impart similar values to the ones NLP tries to teach its students—to be aware of the complexities of newsgathering and editorial judgment, to hold editors and reporters accountable and actively communicate with them.

“One of the most valuable things I think we teach students is to interact with news organizations, to send letters to the editor, and to reach out when there are corrections to be made,” says Darragh Worland, New York program manager and vice president of digital media for NLP. And teaching this type of active communication (letters to the editor, Rosenthal points out, are still thriving and do get responses) are a way to slowly and steadily empower readers to grow up into informed, active citizens, and perhaps even widen that engaged demographic beyond premium subscriber types.

One afternoon last spring at James Weldon Johnson Leadership Academy in Harlem, for instance, Worland encouraged an 11-year-old student to approach journalist Karen Toulon to tell her that he was not happy with the use of the word “needy” in a recent article about Jay-Z’s scholarships for students. He expressed concern to her that the article made it sound like the students couldn’t afford food or clothing, when all they really needed was college tuition money.

While the article was not changed, Toulon, Bloomberg News’ New York bureau chief, was receptive to the student’s concern and explained how journalists often deliberate over word choice in the newsroom. After all, she and several other journalists were at the school that afternoon because of a partnership between Bloomberg News and NLP.

“We don’t have to be victims of how the news is being reported if we don’t like it,” explains Worland. “I don’t think it’s uncommon to use that language in an article, but these are certainly active conversations [about language] that are happening all the time in newsrooms.”

“I think inevitably one thing that comes out when journalists come in are a lot of things that the journalists often take for granted that people just understand or know,” adds Adams. “Things like how complex and how challenging news reporting and news gathering can be, for a variety of reasons. Students don’t really understand that at all, and I think the general public assumes that it’s a much more straightforward process than it really is.”

Funding for this coverage is provided by the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.

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Jihii Jolly is a freelance journalist and video producer in New York City