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Engaged Journalism: Lessons From Professor Jake Batsell

Jake Batsell’s research as a professor has always leaned toward the nuts and bolts of journalism; while other professors taught me the history and concepts of the field, Batsell took me and my fellow students to the courthouse to learn how to request information from municipalities. He’s applied this practical approach to the modern, digital-first media environment in his first book: Engaged Journalism: Connecting with Digitally Empowered News Audiences.

The book is an odyssey into the still-uncharted frontier of audience development, highlighting engagement experiments conducted by large and niche websites alike. Batsell covers the importance of face-to-face engagement through events and panels, mining small underserved online communities, using interactives to drive traffic in addition to serving journalistic obligations, and using data to trace journalism back to business objectives.

Four years ago, while I was a reporter for ESPN Dallas, I became one of the subjects of Batsell’s Columbia Journalism Review article about covering Texas high school football. Now that I’m writing for the Parse.ly blog, I decided to bring things full circle by making Batsell, now an assistant professor of journalism at Southern Methodist University, and his book the subject of a blog post.

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Jeff Andrews: Your research started with two Columbia Journalism Review articles you authored, one about covering high school football in Dallas and the other about the launch of the Texas Tribune. How did these articles turn into a book?

Jake Batsell: It seemed a natural extension to try to dig even deeper into the changing relationship between news providers and the audiences they serve. In the case of Dallas-area news outlets trying to deliver high school sports coverage in real-time, these were two very different ventures and articles but they were similar in that they’re both fueled by audience-focused mindsets, whether it’s giving political insiders information they need to keep up with the events of the state capital or whether it’s giving parents and high school sports nuts up-to-the-minute information about football games.

It’s all about delivering information that your audience wants and finding ways to pay for that information in a way that can sustain the public interest journalism that never really paid for itself anyway. It seemed like a good time to try to think deeper.

 

Jeff: Was there anything that surprised you along the way of your research?

Jake: One thing that I guess was a little surprising or at least counterintuitive – which is why I made it the first chapter – is that real-life engagement is becoming such a priority for news organizations. I think when you first toss out the term engagement it seems about liking a post on Facebook or using social media. It was interesting to see how many news organizations were recommitted to connecting with their audiences in person to deliver a worthwhile experience that could build loyalty, that could bring them back to the news site on a regular basis.

A lot of those initiatives have big money potential and we’re seeing not just non-profit but for-profit organizations organize events and festivals. They’re actually producing revenue for the bottom line. Then there are other events that aren’t as quantifiable on the revenue side that still build goodwill with the audience and make a news organization trusted and human.

Another thing that was a little surprising was that I was expecting to encounter a lot more pessimism and burnout than I did. This wasn’t a scientific sample; I sought out newsrooms that were embracing audience engagement strategies obviously, but I was surprised that so many journalists I interviewed of all backgrounds and ages really talked about how taking more of an audience-centered approach to their work infused their jobs with more purpose. They felt like what they were writing was actually being used by their community. For a lot of people it reinvigorated their careers; they were embracing it.

They felt like what they were writing was actually being used by their community. For a lot of people it reinvigorated their careers; they were embracing it.

 

Jeff: You mention that the civil, watchdog element of journalism was never really paying for itself. The print product breaking down into individual pieces of digital content has exposed this. Now that individual pieces of content can be measured, do you think the trend toward digital journalism has made it that much harder to justify certain types of content from a financial point of view?

Jake: You put it well – it has exposed content in terms of what’s most popular to readers and what readers want. We never had access to that information before. We arrogantly assumed that if we did a kick-butt investigation that got someone fired and it was on the front page, all our subscribers were just eating up that story and that’s the reason why they were subscribing to the newspaper. Because of the structure of newsrooms and the professional incentives, in the absence of data, that was what we all assumed.

Now we have the data to understand that – at least online. That does change the equation. It does expose in the light of day how popular each piece of content is with readers and viewers. That doesn’t mean we’ll completely cede news judgement to the crowd, but if the situation is available, you might as well factor it into your decision-making. It absolutely doesn’t mean you don’t pursue public interest journalism because it’s not profitable or doesn’t get the clicks or the hits. What it does mean is that it really forces newsrooms to come to terms with being more humble about the fact that they’re writing for an actual audience.

Screenshot 2015-04-20 14.37.39One example from the book is the way the Las Vegas Sun has embraced coverage of Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), which is an internationally popular and profitable sport that’s headquartered in its backyard, but had been ignored for a long time because they felt it was not up to their standards for news coverage. Now they cover the heck out of it from every angle, especially digitally. It helps produce readership and revenue that can help subsidize public interest journalism. Data exposes audience preferences but it doesn’t have to be a spinach or candy debate. It needs to be both.

 

Jeff: You say in the book that with social media, the reporter’s role has shifted somewhat from gathering facts to interpreting the facts that they’ve gathered. Along with that, journalists have access to the data of their own stories. Given these shifts, what’s the role of the modern journalist now?

Jake: It’s made the job more complex than it used to be. When I was a reporter, my job revolved around producing the product of journalism. The audience was really a secondary factor. It was great if they were a source or would call to praise your story or give you a tip, but we were the journalists, we were the experts and the audience was just there to accept gladly whatever we offered them in whatever format. A quote that I keep returning to is from [Senior Vice President, Strategy, News Corp.] Raju Narisetti. One of his mantras is that part of any journalist’s job in the 21st century is to get more people to see more of their journalism. Once you hit the send button and it’s in the hands of your editor, it’s not time to call it a day. You have to actively find an audience for that journalism and promote it. That’s marketing not only yourself, but your news organization.

That’s not a natural tendency for a lot of journalists. Some personality types are better suited toward that than others, but really journalists have to realize that it’s not enough to just practice journalism anymore. You have to find an audience for that journalism and earn the attention and loyalty of that audience. It’s part of the job. It’s incumbent upon managers to convey that to their employees and provide training.

Any employee of a news organization needs to understand that the goal of their organization is to keep the organization in business so they can continue to provide good journalism. Being aware of the analytics and how well your stories did and having that factor in is another part of it as well. I understand the impulse that many journalists might have to not be comfortable with that, but you can be a purist and cling to the old ways and feel good about yourself, but what happens in five years when your organization goes out of business? It’s important to internally embrace these new roles because they’re essential to commercial survival.

Once you hit the send button and it’s in the hands of your editor, it’s not time to call it a day. You have to actively find an audience for that journalism and promote it.

 

Jeff: One of the many experiment comparisons in the book I found interesting was the success of The Dallas Morning News’ high school football app vs. the failure of The Seattle Times’ Washington Husky football app. Having covered Texas high school football, I know how rabid those fans are. I’m not sure the same can be said of Husky football. The Times cited budgeting issues as the cause of the Husky app’s failure, but how much did picking the wrong niche or locale contribute to these failures?

Jake: A lot of it does boil down to the market. I’m teaching a class on media entrepreneurship so I’m learning a lot about this as well. Marc Andreessen of Netscape has a famous blog post about what matters most for a company– the product, the team, or the market. Ultimately, his conclusion is that it’s the market that matters. It boils down to an audience-focused mindset.

Thinking about the potential market and audience, the business side and the news side need to work together on this. That’s been heresy in newsrooms for a long time. The Husky app, one thing Frank [Blethen] the [Seattle Times] publisher said was that communication between the news side and the business side was one reason why that app was a disaster. News leaders need to appreciate and understand the other side and work together to further their shared organizational mission, which is journalism that also pays for itself.

 

Jeff: You described digital journalism as a conversation. Is technology going to shape the new voice of journalism?

Jake: The example I use in the book is the New Haven Independent when Superstorm Sandy unearthed that skeleton that was tangled in the roots of a tree. The New Haven Register did your standard inverted pyramid story. The New Haven Independent was out there doing a running photo blog. It was a chronology. It was all on the same page. You watched the story unfold. The story went viral. It ends up being a joke on Saturday Night Live with Seth Meyers mentioning it. It got translated into Russian and other languages. It was because the New Haven Independent said we’re going to deliver this story in a way that’s most reader-friendly as possible. It’s one thing to read about a skeleton being tangled up in gnarly roots, but what does it mean to actually see that and see it unfold as the police come out and investigate it?

We’re seeing this at Vice and Vox and BuzzFeed of course; these are news organizations that are growing and they’re delivering information in nontraditional ways that actually resonate with their audience. That’s something that the legacy media needs to notice to be relevant. It doesn’t mean the New York Times becomes BuzzFeed, but it means the New York Times is aware of what’s working for BuzzFeed and thinks about employing some of those strategies in a way that works for the Times brand and the Times readers. Alternative story forms are the rule. They’re the norm. They’re not the exception. As journalists we ignore them at our peril.

Article image from Lea Thompson, The Knight Center on Flickr.