Engaging audiences for better civic discourse

“Journalists are expert empathizers — audiences will come to value this rare skill and pay for it, even if they don’t always agree with your content.”

The industry has been talking a lot about audience engagement lately, but mostly via online tools (at times intersecting with civic tech) and in-person forums. But where have any these ideas connected to the current polarizing political discourse — including where young people have been on fire, trying to push for systems change and accountability?

jennifer-choiIn 2016, journalism is going to rethink on how we frame audience engagement in the following ways:

Engaging means being brave and reaching out, instead of asking audiences to come to you. Build trust and relationships over time.

It’s very difficult to build trust and credibility online in ways that get people to know who you really are — especially when you’re trying to reach new audiences. You have to go out there and show your value to these communities in a way that resonates instead of being presumptive about your value. Be transparent about your agenda; ask a lot of questions and listen thoughtfully. But make sure that as a content provider you are offering a win-win solution. It’s the first step to building brand loyalty.

And on this, there’s going to be an opportunity for news organizations to build a robust local strategy. When we’re building audience relationships, a local strategy provides more immediacy, speaking to the issues most relevant to audiences.

We’re going to stop saying “underserved” audiences and look at new audiences as audiences of opportunity.

There’s a lot of lip service around building diverse audiences, but these audiences will not engage with (much less pay) for your content if they don’t feel valued or included in your content.

The new highly valued skill in authentically engaging new audiences will be the ability to connect and bridge diverse constituent groups.

I’ve seen some of these emerging leaders in the next generation of journalists. They have this rare ability to go in and gain membership to many different constituent groups. In a highly segregated city like Chicago, it’s especially valuable. These journalists bring different groups of people together, get community buy-in, and can attract audiences I don’t typically see come out for these forums.

There’s a business case for doing the above three very well. It makes it clear the critical role journalism has to play in fostering a better civic discourse that takes (all of) its audiences seriously. Then we can have interesting and new civic conversations to move us as a society of disparate community groups collectively forward.

I was a musician just as the digital music revolution hit, and we were stressed about kids not wanting to pay for music anymore. But my savvier colleagues revved up their game and created unique experiences for their audiences — some of them even switched to a donations-only model. And guess what? Their audiences supported these artists, some even more than before.

I also see it in public media. You have to treat your audiences well and give them “the feels” for issues and experiences outside their own worldview. Journalists are expert empathizers — audiences will come to value this rare skill and pay for it, even if they don’t always agree with your content. The tote bag isn’t enough for public media donors to continue to contribute year after year — it’s the social value that public media brings to people who want smart and thoughtful information.

This year, journalists and news organizations will own their critical roles in the civic conversation. Folks are hungry for it — especially in the context of the 2016 elections. The time is now, and 2016 will be a huge opportunity year for this.

Jennifer Choi is a program officer for the McCormick Foundation’s Democracy Program.