UGC as a path out of the bubble

“When we make listening the job of one or two people in a newsroom instead of remembering that this is the cornerstone of journalism, we lose track of what readers are actually taking from our work.”

Audience development and growth jobs blossomed in 2016. The need for smarter, deeper stats has been more important than ever, as our newsrooms have come to realize that unique viewer counts just aren’t going to cut it anymore in providing the time of information we need to create content that reaches and informs the masses. But in this rabid thirst for metrics, we’ve replaced the idea of a conversation with the old magazine and print adage of telling our readers what to think — rather than making the news a conversation and learning from the people we provide service to.

annemarie-doolingLook no further than 2016 election coverage to see the damage speaking at people, instead of with them, can cause. The results of the election, the lack of trust, and ultimately, the response in November, while a shock to many journalists, was not that crazy of an outcome to community managers and others who have spent a large part of this year listening to cultures unlike our own and outside of the newsroom bubble. When we make listening the job of one or two people in a newsroom instead of remembering that this is the cornerstone of journalism, we lose track of what readers are actually taking from our work, as well as the narrative we are sharing with them.

As journalists, we are exposed to a wealth of knowledge every day, but should never forget that there are millions of people outside of our newsrooms who are more of an expert in whatever we’re writing about — any topic, on any given day — than we will ever be. User-generated content has been one of the most blatant ways of keeping the dialogue between reader and writer open, but it’s also become an evergreen circus of curated quotes. We cannot assume that low-hanging fruit Q&As are the best form of user-generated content anymore, and maybe they never were. We need to work on ways to track a wider range of sources from our audiences, and new ways to roll their experiences into our coverage. Twitter quizzes and Facebook polls don’t tell us anything about the story of a reader, and comments, though more authentic than other forms of UGC, are policed and feared to the point that they don’t provide a service to reader or journalist. Let’s really consider how we communicate.

Before engaging in any UGC, let’s ask what these answers will provide. What question are we asking and how does it fit into the larger strategy around coverage? Who will learn from this? What’s the story we’re telling? By rolling these reader experiences into our work, we open up our newsrooms to new ways of thinking, more authentic conversations with our audience which builds more trust and loyalty, and more accurate reporting for the longterm.

Annemarie Dooling is director of programming at Racked.

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