Survey of Newsroom Public-Engagement Programs, October 2016

Produced for the National Conference on Dialogue & Deliberation, October 2016, by Peggy Holman (Journalism That Matters), Kyle Bozentko (The Jefferson Center), and Josh Wilson (Watershed Media Project).

Sample details

  • Distribution: The survey was distributed to members of the Institute for Nonprofit News, the Media Consortium, the Center for Cooperative Media, and to clients and members of the Hearken community.
  • Respondents: 23 news organizations responded
  • Positivity bias? Since all of these organizations endorse engagement programming, or actively provide engagement services, the responses are pretty positive overall.
  • Budgetary bias? 23 news organizations responded. The majority (11) of respondents had budgets of $500K annually or more. They were followed by seven (7) respondents with budgets from $150K-$499K. In contrast, there were only three total responses from lower-budgeted organizations, from <$75K to $149K. Why is this? One possible explanation may reflect the fact that engagement programming costs money, and that larger organizations do have the resources to invest in community-facing programming that’s simply beyond the reach of smaller organizations.

Responses: An overview

  • Social media is used as “push media.” The majority (20) of responding newsrooms tended to use social media and outreach campaigns to promote their coverage; the same number of respondents said they staged panel events that included audience Q&A.
  • 15 respondents said that they “directly solicited or polled” audiences for tips, feedback and story ideas.
  • More intensive activities had fewer responses. Only 6 staged listening events at least once annually, for example.
  • 18 newsrooms gave brief overviews of their process for managing tips from the community. All were astute, and described practical methods that this fits into a newsroom’s workflow. One lengthy response, however, is particularly telling for the way it breaks down how budgeting and even funding sources impacts the editorial process of committing to a story. It is reproduced here in full, and should be eye-opening for the way it frames the process and challenges of running a quality newsroom:

“[We] evaluate [tips] based on our knowledge of the topic area, reporters’ insight on the topic area, other news coverage. We value suggestions from our readers and take them seriously in shaping our coverage. Not everything that is checked out results in a story. If not, we let the person know what we concluded and why.

“We primarily do investigative reporting projects. We would need to determine how important it is based on our goals–will it have impact and if so how much impact and on which institutions, populations as we begin moving forward. How timely or urgent is it and how do those answers affect our other projects, commitments. Do we have the “right” people to do it, and if not, what will it take to identify those contributors and how will bringing them on affect our budget, and can we afford it? How much time do we think it will take to report and achieve impact?And what will that take in terms of staff, budget, other resources to accomplish our goals? And if we want to do the story, how will other stories, projects, investigations already under way be affected, and can we afford those costs.”

  • A majority of respondents said that engagement programming has had positive impacts, improving their coverage (13 respondents) and traffic (13 respondents). A minority (7 respondents) says such programing has improved their fundraising.
  • 13 respondents said they’d like to do more engagement programming, but are constrained by budgets; individual comments expressed frustration with mastering the new skill sets (perhaps because engagement is still an emerging practice in journalism?), and with the fact that “it can be expensive, and time consuming.” Two final comment captures the dilemma of these newsrooms:

“We have a small staff and sincere engagement requires an investment that competes for our time.”

“I hope we can maintain effective staffing to manage community engagement”

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