The audience engagement industry struggles with measuring success

Photo by Yolanda Sun on Unsplash

“Audience engagement” is the buzzword of contemporary newsrooms. It’s not always clear what audience engagement is, or how it benefits newsrooms, but a growing number of people are selling it. And many news organizations are buying.

Audience engagement has many interpretations, all stemming from one underlying belief: that journalists better serve their audience when explicitly focus on how their audiences interact with and respond to the news. The excitement surrounding this term, and its adoption by many pressured newsrooms, has resulted in a growing industry providing engagement tools and services to newsrooms. What’s conspicuously missing from this ongoing embrace of engagement as a journalistic goal is empirical evidence of what, precisely, engagement delivers.

In research for the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, I embedded with some of these companies to explore how they define success, what  obstacles they face, and what their offerings mean for journalism’s relationship to the public. For one of my three case studies, I embedded with Hearken, a Chicago-based company that offers audience engagement tools and consulting to about a hundred news organizations worldwide, for three months. Hearken, which was founded in 2015 by Jennifer Brandel and Corey Haines, is only one of a growing number of companies and organizations offering engagement. Some attempt to measure audience engagement with analytics (e.g., Chartbeat), others to cultivate it (GroundSource), and still others to teach best practices for pursuing it (the Agora Journalism Center’s Gather project and platform).

Hearken has been financially successful. The company now boasts over a hundred newsroom clients, a growing team, and a list of foundations eager to subsidize nonprofit newsrooms interested in its services, though it has not been able to demonstrate, empirically, its value to newsrooms (e.g., that it boosts revenue, or that it increases audience trust). Instead, Hearken’s pitch appeals to journalists’ gut instincts about the profession’s shortcomings, the challenges the industry is facing, and its ideal form as something much more collaborative. As a result, Hearken’s economic success does not necessarily reflect the value of audience engagement so much as it does the belief among journalists that the profession should improve its relationship with the audience.

What follows is a summary of these findings, which were recently published in a special issue of Digital Journalism devoted to “measurable journalism.”

 

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The site

Hearken’s primary tool is an online platform that invites audiences to submit story ideas, allowing these outlets to bring the audience directly into the reporting process. This tool typically takes the form of a graphic on the publisher’s web page with a textbox where audience members can type a question as well as their contact information. Once audience members submit questions, Hearken provides newsrooms with an additional, online platform that allows the audience to vote on what question they think is the most interesting. Then, the idea is that a journalist from the newsroom will set out to answer the most popular question, and might even take the person who submitted the question along for the reporting. In addition to these tools, Hearken also offers engagement consulting to newsrooms. A subscription to these tools and services averages about $8,500 annually.

Hearken defines audience engagement as an ongoing process by which journalists actively listen to and communicate with audiences in order to earn their trust and loyalty. This is somewhat different than the prevailing interpretation, which says that editors and journalists should communicate more with audiences about their stories post-publication via social media or comments sections. Therefore, Hearken’s bottom line depends on persuading newsrooms that its interpretation of audience engagement is worth pursuing.

 

Little empirical data exists that can corroborate the belief that the public’s lack of trust in journalism can be solved by an increase in audience engagement.

 

But little empirical data currently exists that can corroborate the belief that the public’s lack of trust in journalism—and journalism’s sometimes-related financial issues—can be solved by an increase in audience engagement. Surveys do show that the public is distrustful of news, and business models across the news industry are increasingly viewed as unsustainable—but no clear-cut study has established that these circumstances will improve when newsrooms invite their audiences into the news production process. Maybe audiences don’t trust journalism because they don’t feel its production includes their voices or represents their views—as Hearken’s model suggests. But perhaps the opposite is true, and journalism’s traditional arm’s length approach to the audience could be one of the few things preserving what little trust it still has.

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Hearken’s pitch

During my observations, I often heard newsroom representatives cite a desire to grow the organization’s audience. But Hearken’s employees have not explicitly set out to help news publishers find larger audiences. They only claim to help publishers form better relationships with their audiences. Therefore, when Hearken staff would pitch its services, they would explain to potential clients that a small news audience was not their primary problem, but a symptom of their failure to engage the public. News organizations are in fact struggling to attract large audiences (a fact is easily verified by widely accepted audience metrics such as pageviews). But Hearken’s solution to this problem, on the other hand, is based entirely on the intuition and anecdotal experience of Hearken’s founder and staff.

For example, Brandel often discussed her time working for Curious City, which was ostensibly the first iteration of Hearken that she began at Chicago’s public radio station. “When I was a journalist, I was able to see it directly in my newsroom, and it’s all anecdotal, but it’s like you have enough anecdotes and you start to see a pattern. You wonder if there’s something to it, and intuitively it feels like there is,” she explained. “So I haven’t like gone to get data beyond my own experience, and the experiences I’m hearing from other reporters who are having these relationships, but from my experience as a reporter, getting to work with a member of the public was really meaningful for them.”

 

‘The marinade of the industry right now is one of extreme shit-your-pants fear,’ Brandel said.

 

Hearken’s employees draw on these anecdotes to argue that its offerings were both a means to better journalism, as well as a potential means to economic returns. Some news publishers using Hearken’s services, according to their internal presentations, did report more pageviews or an increase in memberships or subscribers. But presenting these claims to the public was tricky for Hearken, since at this point, these results are more circumstantial than empirical.

More often, Hearken’s staff focused more on abstract notions of what journalism should look like in the sales pitch. Hearken’s underlying argument is that when news publishers meaningfully connect with their audiences, they become better qualified to serve them. To persuade journalists that they could facilitate these connections, Hearken’s employees would point to results from a survey they had given to its partnering newsrooms that made positive claims about how Hearken helped them “serve their organization’s mission” and “solve problems of audience engagement.”

 

Does the public want it?

Even within a news media landscape that includes a variety of empirical data about audience behavior and lack of trust in media, there is currently no survey that can prove (or disprove) that the public wants more control of—and say in—the way journalism gets produced. Hearken’s initial success—and that of it its competitors—is less an indication that audience engagement is a useful solution to revenue declines than of journalists’ uncertainty about the news industry. As publications struggle to survive, journalists can’t help but think that improving the relationship between news producers and the audience is at least a step in the right direction. As Brandel said during one of our conversations, “The marinade of the industry right now is one of extreme shit-your-pants fear… So I do think there’s a combination between, ‘I know that relationships and engagement are important’ and ‘ad revenue is continuously dropping.’”

For instance, while recapping a pitch she gave to a large, daily newspaper, Engagement Consultant Julia Haslanger described how its reporters and editors grew visibly excited during her explanation about why audience engagement would strengthen the bond between journalists and the audience. “The slide they were most excited about was benefits to their reporters of feeling fulfilled—you’re talking to someone who appreciates the work that you’re doing, you feel like you’re serving your audience,” she explained, “they seemed to like that a lot.” And during a separate conversation, Engagement Consultant  Ellen Mayer said that Hearken’s mission resonates with journalists’ sense that there is indeed a troubling distance between news producers and consumers that more explicit engagement can help bridge. “Everybody’s like, ‘We think this is important, we believe in what you’re doing, we don’t need to be convinced, you know, of the model or the process, we just want to hear, like, how – what’s the best way for us to do it where we’re at?’”

In short, a number of journalism stakeholders seem to be investing in the idea that if news publishers pay closer attention to understanding and communicating with their audiences, they will find revenue they desperately need while providing impactful, public service journalism. And they are willing to spend money on pursuing that belief even in the absence of quantifiable data to support it.

Hearken’s pitch of “Journalism’s relationship with the audience is broken. We can help you fix it,” has a profound and effective appeal. As Brandel put it during one of our interviews, “We have to try something.”

 

The future of engagement

Is more engagement something audiences want? Maybe, maybe not. Research that investigates that question would be helpful in corroborating whether or not the gut instincts that are compelling publishers to partner with organizations like Hearken are supported by evidence, either in the form of audience surveys or the demonstration of a relationship between engagement and revenue. Some scholars have already begun pursuing this work. Hopefully more will follow.

This gap presents an opportunity not just for scholars, but for audience measurement firms as well. There are countless conversations about audience engagement that occur annually at a variety of journalism practice and research conferences. These conversations tend to include editors, reporters, and publishers, but rarely include employees of companies like comScore and Nielsen who are in the business of understanding how audiences behave.

Hearken’s effort to spread its interpretation of audience engagement is just one piece of an ongoing public effort to save journalism’s business model and change journalistic practice. Maybe Hearken’s interpretation of audience engagement—or someone else’s—will become the norm, or maybe in a few years the term “audience engagement” will vanish altogether and be replaced by a new pursuit. Other folks in the news industry have their own ideas about what role the audience should have in news production, if any. The outcome likely depends on how much the arguments underlying audience engagement continue to resonate with other news industry professionals. It also depends on the actual preferences of the audiences themselves, who may indeed want a more personal connection to journalism, but alternatively may prefer the attempted objectivity and audience disconnect that has been an essential element of journalism since the 20th century. Regardless, this conversation is affecting how journalists produce the news now, and what they expect of public—as well as what the public expects of them.

Editor’s note, May 3: In response to this article, Jennifer Brandel, CEO and co-founder of Hearken, submitted a letter to CJR disputing the article’s findings, which can be found here. CJR and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism stand by the story.

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Jacob L. Nelson is a PhD candidate at Northwestern University. His research explores the relationship between news organizations and their audiences. Follow him @jnelz.