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Oct. 3, 2019, 12:54 p.m.
Reporting & Production

The business case for listening to your audience is still murky (but early results are promising)

“Newsrooms generally reported increased levels of engagement and higher-quality conversations with audiences. Nearly all of the grant reports we reviewed reported increased engagement.” That (still) doesn’t yet translate into money.

Does audience engagement-focused reporting actually improve a news organization’s revenue?

After $650,000, nearly three dozen newsrooms’ experiments, and one year later, it’s still unclear. Four major journalism funders pooled the money for a fund to support a variety of outlets’ attempts at connecting the use of audience engagement and transparency tools with increased reader revenue. A report studying the first of three rounds of grants highlights some best practices and promising results — with a few “if”s.

Our research found that Hearken and GroundSource can both be used effectively to deepen community engagement, open up relationships with new audience members, and shape editorial coverage, if

  1. managed by motivated staff members
  2. in newsrooms with ample support from leadership
  3. and enough time to employ the services well,

wrote Dot Connector Studio impact evaluators Jessica Clark, Katie Donnelly, and Michelle Polyak in a review of the Community Listening and Engagement Fund. (The bullet points and bolding are mine, not theirs.)

They added:

Little data is currently available from CLEF participants’ reports that connects use of these services with increased revenue or membership. The majority of newsrooms did not report seeing any evidence of increased revenue within the time frame of the CLEF initiative, but there were exceptions. One grantee reported: “The content that comes from our Hearken content absolutely converts to paying [subscribers]. We have both actual and anecdotal evidence.”

The Lenfest Institute, Knight Foundation, Democracy Fund, and News Integrity Initiative all contributed to the fund that supported 34 newsrooms’ Hearken and GroundSource experiments over 2018. (These ranged from election coverage to Cephalopod of the Day.) The fund supported between 25 and 85 percent of the first-year costs of using either or both services, from $2,000 to more than $16,000, with an average price of $8,500. CLEF was pitched as a way to help newsrooms produce more relevant and trusted coverage, but the project was also a way to examine the impact of these tools at scale after planting seeds in the industry.

“Our initial thinking was we would give newsrooms a stipend to use the tools for a year and in a year we’d be able to see the results and how that ties to business sustainability. Thinking that that would all happen in one year was not realistic,” said Cheryl Thompson-Morton, program manager at Lenfest. “We also saw with our grantees — and I think this is an issue throughout the industry — that all of these different services aren’t talking to each other.” (The irony of that happening in association with a community and listening fund is real.)

The impact report authors wrote:

While journalists are often encouraged to become entrepreneurs and develop innovative new ways to connect with audiences, there is a gap in dollars for adoption of new tools and services. This can be frustrating to grantmakers, who spend years supporting development only to see promising services fail to thrive. What’s more, because foundations tend to support nonprofit outlets and organizations, for-profit newsrooms and service providers are often left out of the puzzle. CLEF subsidizes the cost of using the services by way of the newsrooms and then support flows to the service providers. In turn, the service providers have not only more income but a new cohort of users to help refine their offerings.

Much has changed on the audience engagement side of the industry over the past few years since CLEF was announced. Audience engagement data itself is sometimes tricky to collect and has sparked many debates, as Laura Hazard Owen laid out here in April 2018. And the tools themselves are constantly changing: The Community Listening and Engagement Fund started with Hearken and GroundSource, which are now setting up shop in Europe thanks to a new investment infusion and undergoing a reinvention phase as a loyalty machine with journalistic benefits, respectively. The third round of CLEF grantees were able to choose from MuckRock/DocumentCloud (which merged services last year), the Coral Project’s Talk (which is now just Coral and part of Vox Media’s tech stack services), and the Listening Post Collective.

The third round, the first with these tools, runs through July 2020, according to Thompson-Morton.

Other highlights from the report:

  1. “Newsrooms generally reported increased levels of engagement and higher-quality conversations with audiences. Nearly all of the grant reports we reviewed reported increased engagement. Lenfest’s internal analysis of CLEF from July 2018 found that engaging community members in reporting results in them engaging longer with newsrooms and more with public-powered stories, and spending a longer time on the page than average.”
  2. “Embedding these engagement services on their websites also led to an increase in newsletter subscribers. However, while some larger newsrooms were able to add dozens or more new subscribers, overall these conversion rates have been inconsistent.”
  3. “Newsrooms also reported that the services help give reporting a longer life, rather than disappearing in social media or in the churn of digital headlines. This allowed newsrooms to resurface and repackage older content that addresses community questions and needs.”
  4. “Some newsrooms found the cost of the services and related staffing prohibitive and were unclear as to whether they would be able to continue to use them after the grant period ended. As one grantee put it, they ‘can afford either the tool or the dedicated staffing for it, but not both.’ However, as of May 2019, seven of newsrooms have signed up to continue to use the services after the grant period ended.”
  5. “Overall, in CLEF’s first year, the creation of a collaborative funder coalition signaled a strong message of support to the field at large. Newsrooms noticed, and applied.”

The full report is available here.

Photo by Mohammad Metri used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Oct. 3, 2019, 12:54 p.m.
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