Coral Project guides to audience engagement teach newsrooms how to fish

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What are the legal concerns for newsrooms that host their own comments? What metrics should you be using to measure engagement? How you manage a commenter who repeatedly harasses others? Audience engagement can be a daunting project for newsrooms to tackle on their own—but an important one, especially in an era of declining trust in the news.

Now, nonprofit newsroom-resource collaboration The Coral Project, after talking with journalists and community managers in more than 150 newsrooms and 30 countries, has come up with a set of guides to audience engagement. The Coral Project, which I first wrote about last year at CJR, researches and creates open-source tools to support online relationships with readers. It was initially funded by the Knight Foundation (which also funds the Tow Center for Digital Journalism), and now supported by the Mozilla Foundation and others.

“Our mission is to help journalists get closer to the communities they serve,” writes director Andrew Losowsky via email. “We build software to make that easier, but it’s always been about more than just software.” Journalists also need strategic resources. The Guides don’t tell you what to do, but rather, what questions to ask, suggesting starting points for everything from a community mission statement to security policies. If you’re setting up an online community, for instance, there are a number of details to consider: “What are you going to require from them in order for them to interact with your other community members? A photo? Their gender? A name? A real name? Credentials from another website? A phone number?”

Its first product, Ask, allows newsrooms to create designed, customized forms to solicit responses from their readers. Talk—which is being adopted by The Washington Post, Losowsky told me—is a system built to support commenting and moderation which newsrooms can control on their own sites. Ask has been adopted by newsrooms such as PBS Frontline, and Talk is being adopted by The Washington Post, Losowsky told me.

The Coral Project Guides step on the scene at a moment when newsrooms are struggling to maintain the trust of readers, and sometimes looking to social platforms such as Facebook to host services like commenting. While social media sites can be easy and free ways to host conversations with readers, Losowsky reminds me that “Facebook’s number one goal at all times is to keep people on Facebook.” The data and tools Facebook offers to publishers are typically extremely limited. Developing your own community strategy can help develop relationships with the online audience, and keep them as your readers—rather than as Facebook users.

Plus, great journalism often comes from concerted effort at audience engagement. Losowsky pointed me toward a few examples highlighted in the Guides: “Terry Parris Jr.’s work at ProPublica is outstanding; Spaceship Media’s approach suggests a very different kind of journalism; jesikah maria ross’s work points us to a more collaborative way of storytelling that I’d love to see more newsrooms adopt. And while not a news organization, the community that Captain Awkward has created offers inspiring lessons that newsrooms can learn from.”

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No one expects a panacea for the news industry, but Losowsky believes that audience engagement might just be that: “The evidence shows that strong, genuine community is the way to improve many of journalism’s problems—from trustworthiness to diversity issues, from finding sources to revenue generation,” writes Losowsky in an email. Whether your business model is based on ads or on subscriptions, higher engagement from readers will help. In the meantime, they want to hear from you: What’s missing from the Guides? What’s helpful? After all, the main thing is to Talk.

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Nausicaa Renner is editor of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism’s vertical at Columbia Journalism Review. She tweets at @nausjcaa.