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Reporters go on the offensive

“‘Engagement specialist’ will really just be ‘reporter,’ and those journalists declining to engage in these new ways will find their networks limited to other reporters like them.”

As journalism continues to be attacked and “fake news” continues to proliferate in 2019, reporters will aggressively develop audiences using different and more niche kinds of social platforms. Journalists will turn away from Twitter and Facebook, where increasing numbers of bots and excessive vitriol dominate exchanges, and implement citizen relationships in more closed forums. This will have the effect of further polarizing people unless journalists make conscious efforts to prioritize inclusivity in their bid for survival.

Present-day interactions on Facebook and Twitter have made many journalists more distrustful and wary of individual citizens and even more insular in their networks, according to some current research we are doing with Knight Foundation. This rejection combines with the growing public disenchantment with Facebook after revelations of privacy violations. On a pragmatic level, I see platforms like Snapchat (currently making a bid for news organizations’ attention) and Instagram as having a window of opportunity to become the new Facebook and Twitter in terms of dominant market share around news consumption.

In addition, journalists will turn to more private interactions with opted-in participants, on channels such as email newsletters or private group platforms such as Slack and WhatsApp. The result of this shift will give more power to companies like Hearken, which will become the new midwives for the industry. These consultants will usher in newsroom revolutions in norms and routines demanded by failing revenue models and constant threats both rhetorical and physical. (I foresee more violence against reporters in 2019, but that’s fodder for another prediction — a much more depressing one.) This must be the new strategy in the face of persistent attempts to destroy the relationship between the press and its constituents. In other words, reporters need to go on the offensive in 2019.

On a more meta level, these shifts require new conceptualizing around what “audience” is — again. Of course, this work is being done already by those calling themselves “engagement specialists” (who have been around now for nearly a decade), but my research has found a huge chasm remains in the conceptualizations of audience work between these engagement specialists and mainstream, traditional journalists. I predict that this thinking will become the norm for the profession, mandated by more and more publishers and editors.

It will have to be. With this turn must come a more ubiquitous mindset about individual-focused audience interaction among all journalists. “Engagement specialist” will really just be “reporter,” and those journalists declining to engage in these new ways will find their networks limited to other reporters like them, with less and less influence to set our deliberative agendas. The warning here, though, is that in this niche-oriented reconfiguration, journalists must remember to emphasize bridging of difference and act as democratic ambassadors, setting up discursive forums that aim to amplify all voices and not merely those who have the confidence and networks, time and know-how to participate.

Sue Robinson is Helen Firstbrook Franklin Professor of Journalism at the University of Wisconsin.

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