Is engaging with readers the key to both trust and revenue?

As more media companies move toward subscription and membership-based models to generate revenue, engaging with readers has become ever more important. Yet some institutions seem uncomfortable with building community outside their walls. How should journalists approach this task? This week, I asked a group of experts during a weeklong series of interviews on our Galley discussion platform. Mike Masnick—who founded his site, Techdirt, as a one-man blog—said that the fundamental mistake many news outlets make is “not realizing it’s always been a community building business.” 

Joy Mayer, who runs the Trusting News project, said that, at a time when trust in journalism is extremely low, and many readers are suspicious about bias, engaging with them is often the best way to convince them you deserve their trust. “We work with newsrooms on ways to draw attention to their mission, motivations, processes, and ethics. If you work to be fair, what does that look like?” Mayer said. “It’s natural for the public to be confused, overwhelmed, and frustrated by what they see journalists do. But if journalists believe in their own work, they need to take the time to explain why.” Summer Fields, of Hearken, a tech consultancy for media companies, told me, “We’ve seen that the more your audience sees you are valuing them, the more likely they are to trust you as well as support you, either financially or with their time.” 

Lauren Katz, of Vox Media, said that the company has used crowdsourcing projects to report on a number of investigative stories, including one about healthcare costs that involved asking readers for their personal experiences. More than two thousand submissions poured in. And that was the start of a relationship. “It’s not just that we want them to tell us the thing and then never talk to them again,” Katz said. “It’s an invitation to be part of an ongoing conversation.” Najva Sol, of Quartz, has seen engagement come from revamping the site’s comment section. “We knew that creating a civil community experience requires a culture change,” she said. So Quartz made a number of alterations, including shifting its terminology from “commenting” to “contributing,” outlining community behavior agreements, and reaching out to experts in the Quartz readership and encouraging them to weigh in. 

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Other media outlets see engagement as an ongoing series of social events, said Christine Schmidt, who is soon moving from Nieman Lab to join Pierre Omidyar’s Democracy Fund. The Dallas Morning News and Block Club Chicago regularly hold office hours in libraries and coffee shops to meet with people who might not be subscribers; the Morning News recently hosted a bus tour of Dallas with one of its columnists, something he started doing as a way of onboarding new interns. “I see engagement as all about making sure people feel heard and included (and of course, actually listening to and including them),” Schmidt told me. And if readers feel listened to and included, then maybe they will be more likely to get out their checkbooks: Simon Galperin, of GroundSource, which offers media companies a text-messaging platform for connecting with readers, said that research shows engaged audiences are three times as likely to become donors or subscribers to the sites with which they engage.

Here’s more on engagement, trust, and journalism:

  • Part of the newsroom: Hanna Ingber, editorial director of the New York Times’ Reader Center, said in her Galley interview that the center isn’t a replacement for the public editor, a position the Times shut down in 2017. “The major difference is that the public editor sat outside the newsroom,” she explained, whereas “we are part of the newsroom.” Ingber said she tries to use the center as a way of showing readers that they’re being heard. “Sometimes we see that many readers have the same question, and it leads us to write an article or explainer on the topic,” she told me. That happened recently, when the Times noticed that many people were asking why a president asking another country for help ahead of an election was such a big deal; the DC bureau worked up an explainer.
  • Solving the puzzle: Ariel Zirulnick of the Membership Puzzle Project, a public research initiative, gave me some examples of her partnerships: the Akron Devil Strips conversion into a member-owned cooperative; the Colorado Media Project, which is exploring a statewide media membership program for a number of different outlets; and efforts abroad, in Romania and in India, where MPP is launching a network of medical professionals who can help journalists tackle medical misinformation.
  • Scale and community: A new paper published by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism looks at digital-first media entities and their approaches to community engagement. The researchby Julie Posetti of the Reuters Institute, Felix Simon of the Oxford Internet Institute, and Nabeelah Shabbir, conversation editor at The Correspondentfinds that news organizations are increasingly focused on forging relationships with their audiences, “emphasizing physical encounters, investment in niche audiences over empty reach, and moving communities to action.”
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Other notable stories:

  • Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was formally charged with bribery, fraud, and breach of trust on Thursday, making him the first Israeli leader to be indicted while in office. The indictment alleges that Netanyahu, the country’s longest-serving prime minister, and his wife, Sara, accepted more than $260,000 worth of luxury goods in exchange for political favors, and that Netanyahu interceded with regulators and lawmakers on behalf of two media companies in exchange for positive news stories. Ruth Margalit wrote about Netanyahu’s toxic relationship with the press in a piece for CJR.
  • Laurene Powell Jobs, billionaire philanthropist, will assume greater control of The Atlantic magazine as it seeks a new president/CEO and longtime Atlantic Media chairman David Bradley prepares to step away from management duties, company executives told Politico. In a memo, Bradley told staff members that he’ll remain chairman following the selection of a new Atlantic leader, but not in an “executive” capacity and without any direct reports. He said he’ll continue to help where useful, in areas such as “recruiting, retention, matters of culture,” and “Washington entertaining.”
  • In October, President Donald Trump hosted a dinner with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Peter Thiel, a member of Facebook’s board, at the White House, the company told NBC News on Wednesday. The meeting, a secret until this week, took place during Zuckerberg’s most recent visit to Washington, where he testified before Congress about Libra, Facebook’s new cryptocurrency. Elizabeth Warren said on Twitter that the “secret dinner” was evidence of “corruption, plain and simple.”
  • The Department of Homeland Security violated the First Amendment when it allegedly tracked and interrogated five journalists between 2018 and 2019, the American Civil Liberties Union said in a lawsuit filed Wednesday. The lawsuit includes accounts by five freelance photojournalists, all of whom are US citizens and were stopped by Customs and Border Protection, an agency within DHS, while traveling to and from Mexico. The journalists were documenting a group of migrants who were traveling to the US-Mexico border.
  • Google says it is changing its policy on political advertising so that campaigns and advertisers will no longer be able to direct ads specifically to audiences based on their public voter records or political affiliations. In a blog post, the company said it made the changes as a result of “recent concerns and debates about political advertising, and the importance of shared trust in the democratic process.” Facebook is also said to be considering restrictions on how much targeting political campaigns can do with their ads, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal.
  • The owner of the Skagway News, a newspaper in Alaska that was founded in 1897 during the Klondike gold rush, is offering to give the paper away to a suitable proprietor. Larry Persily, a veteran journalist who teaches at the University of Alaska in Anchorage, bought the newspaper less than a year ago, but says operating it has been more difficult than he thought it would be. The paper’s editor recently resigned, so Persily says he is now looking for someone to take over the whole operation. He welcomes emails from anyone who is interested in taking it off his hands.
  • A New York Times investigation has found that a former Fox News executive hired Macedonians to write culturally and politically divisive content for a number of websites. Two such sites, Conservative Edition News and Liberal Edition News, publish inflammatory stories designed to stoke America’s culture wars and were created and are run by Ken LaCorte, the former Fox News executive who was accused of killing a story about President Trump’s affair with Stormy Daniels.
  • In a speech given after receiving the Anti-Defamation League’s International Leadership Award, Sacha Baron Cohen, the actor and comedian, lashed out at tech companies like Facebook, Google, and Twitter, which he said function as “the greatest propaganda machine in history.” Cohen went on to criticize a recent speech by Zuckerberg at Georgetown University, saying, “This is about giving people, including some of the most reprehensible people on earth, the biggest platform in history to reach a third of the planet. Freedom of speech is not freedom of reach.”
  • The Players’ Tribune, a digital media venture launched by former New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, is being acquired. The website, which was introduced in 2014 as an outlet for athletes to tell their own stories, has been acquired by Minute Media, a digital publishing platform founded in Israel that operates a network of sports-media sites around the world. The terms of the deal weren’t disclosed.
  • In a new report, Losing the News: The Decimation of Local News and the Search for Solutions, pen America says there is an “existential threat facing local watchdog journalism” as newspapers struggle to survive. At a time when political polarization is growing and fraudulent news is spreading, “a shared baseline of facts on the issues that most directly affect Americans is more essential than ever.” Among other things, pen recommends that Congress consider either an expansion of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting or the creation of a new national endowment for journalism, funded by contributions from the major tech companies.

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Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.