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Oct. 24, 2019, 9:06 a.m.
Reporting & Production

What if scale breaks community? How to reboot audience engagement amid political attacks and platform capture

“What are the implications of this weaponization for news organizations in terms of audience engagement and community-building work?”

Editor’s note: In their final report from the Journalism Innovation Project, anchored within the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, Julie Posetti, Felix Simon, and Nabeelah Shabbir examine the ways international news organizations are responding to “platform capture” and politically fueled attacks on journalists while they try to remain audience-led. Here, they summarize their findings for Nieman Lab.

Dramatic shifts in the media landscape over the past two decades — including the advent of social media, the rise of participatory audiences, and what we’re calling “platform capture” — have necessitated the transformation of journalism’s relationship with news consumers. Audience engagement innovation became progressively more essential to the sustainability of news publishing — from reporting and storytelling, to distribution and revenue. Such experimentation eventually led to social-focused news organizations that benefited from rapid organic growth, fueled by open platforms that delivered large scale audiences.

But what if scale breaks community?

We asked this not just in the sense of news organizations struggling to manage interactions with large, unwieldy, and unmediated audiences. We also wanted to know because the platforms and mass social media audiences are being increasingly weaponized by malicious actors in orchestrated disinformation campaigns, and turned against journalists and news outlets by political forces, especially in the context of populism and authoritarianism. What are the implications of this weaponization for news organizations in terms of audience engagement and community-building work? And how can news publishers respond to the ongoing challenges?

Recalibrating audiences in response to online toxicity

Our latest report, the final from the Journalism Innovation Project at the Reuters Institute1, tries to answer these questions. It examines three international news organizations in the process of either actively recalibrating audience engagement or experiencing its evolution — in the context of political environments hostile to journalism and destabilizing to democracy, increasing audience toxicity, and strategic responses to platform capture.

They are Rappler in the Philippines, South Africa’s Daily Maverick, and The Quint in India — award-winning news organizations in the Global South, a region understudied by Western journalism researchers, and Petri dishes where innovation is often expressed as ingenuity born of necessity and adversity. All digital-born commercial news publishers, they are committed to journalism’s democratic mission through critical, independent reporting and civic action, while aiming for profitability in markets with very high rates of mobile and social media penetration.

Each of these organizations operates in countries which have slipped further in RSF’s World Press Freedom Rankings since we began this research at the beginning of 2019. The situation is particularly bad in the Philippines, where Rappler is fighting 11 cases brought or aided by the state, and if convicted, executive editor and CEO Maria Ressa faces 63 years in prison.

Another characteristic these news outlets share is that they all began as national publications that are now making an impact and building audiences internationally. Significantly, as we finalized our study, Rappler and Daily Maverick were jointly awarded the top international prize in the Global Investigative Journalism Network’s Shining Light Awards for their reportage on extrajudicial killings in the Philippines following Rodrigo Duterte’s election and “state capture” in South Africa that resulted in the demise of the Zuma government.

How scale broke community

Open “social journalism” at scale, it turns out, was not a final destination (nor necessarily a “safe” one) for audience engagement, but rather a transformative moment on a continuum of innovations, from live events to off-platform dialogue. This has led to ongoing experimentation at the three organizations, with a common emphasis on activist journalism projects designed to create “communities of action” (sometimes in defense of the outlets themselves), the development of more niche audiences, and “safer” spaces for community interaction and participation that respect gender and racial equality, and are inclusive of marginalized communities.

Efforts include: Rappler’s Move.PH community and development of a new publishing platform designed to go beyond standard audience engagement functions and “move people to action” offline (launching early 2020); Daily Maverick’s personalized newsletter suite (their primary distribution driver) and the newly launched niche site Maverick Citizen; and The Quint’s gender equality activism, and citizen journalism collaborations.

Responding to “platform capture” and targeted attacks

Key among these challenges being addressed by the organizations we’ve studied is what we’re describing as platform capture. By this we mean the combination of:

  1. The manipulation of the platforms and their mass user base for malicious purposes, such as orchestrated disinformation campaigns designed to destabilize democracies;
  2. The encouragement of such dependency by the platforms themselves, which have frequently changing priorities for distribution and engagement, expressed through algorithms that veer from amplifying to attenuating news content; and
  3. Some news organizations’ over-reliance on social media for distribution and audience engagement.

As our second report from the project concluded, each of these outlets has experienced the effects of the “weaponization” of online communities fueled by political attacks on the organizations and their journalists, along with orchestrated disinformation campaigns that have either helped destabilize their democracies or threatened to do so. A key feature of these attacks is prolific, brutal, and frequently sexualized, online harassment targeting their journalists (in particular, the women among them) which has in turn chilled audience interaction. They also include a range of digital security threats targeting their sites and online communities, designed to hamper their ability to publish, compromise their data, and hinder user experience.

In response, the outlets we studied have variously advised their journalists to withdraw (at least temporarily) from realtime social media engagement, closed comments or offered them as membership-only functions, shut down citizen blogging platforms, ended participatory reporting projects dependent on partner organizations that either became hostile or withdrew in response to political pressure, and dramatically altered social-media dependent distribution strategies. In short, scale broke — or risked breaking — the open digital communities on which these news organizations were built.

The move to niche communities and membership

One of the most noteworthy audience engagement innovation initiatives that connects this trio of cases is the recent development of membership programs at each of them. Their membership options are known as Rappler Plus, Maverick Insider and Quint Premium. Interestingly, at South Africa’s Daily Maverick, which never fully embraced social media (beyond the minimum of content distribution), instead preferring offline engagement with audiences and more closed forms of online interaction, the transition to membership has been most successful. Membership — which has passed eight thousand — now accounts for 22 percent of Daily Maverick’s revenues. “It’s an incredibly brave business move to start this membership [in South Africa], and it is constantly underwritten by this genuine need to defend truth, and a genuine need to keep it as personable as possible,” DM’s communities manager Francesca Beighton said.

All three organizations have separately leveraged their niche communities for financial support in defense of “truth” and “democracy” in advance of starting membership programs. “There’s a certain amount of honesty and truth…when somebody decides to contribute 500 Rupees without any special additional benefits to her or him, just because they believe in your journalism,” The Quint’s CEO Ritu Kapur said. In the case of Rappler, their most loyal communities have also contributed to their legal defense, as Maria Ressa highlighted:

People have actually been crowdfunding us, even before we created the Rappler Plus [membership] community. They had donated a significant amount — 5 million pesos (approximately $96,000) by the end of 2018 [when the program launched]. And some people were repeatedly giving.

By the end of September 2019, that figure had doubled to $200,000.

Audience engagement comes full circle

In the process of recalibrating audience engagement in response to platform capture and political attacks, these organizations are effectively coming full circle — remembering the importance of forging deeper, narrower and stronger relationships with their audiences, emphasizing physical encounter and investment in niche audiences over scale. A point emphasized by Daily Maverick’s associate editor Ferial Haffajee:

What I’ve learned is that innovation is not bells and whistles and ticks. I think it’s finding where audiences are and then telling them stories in interesting ways that make them think differently…I learned that maybe sometimes your end shouldn’t be to build up these huge audiences. Maybe what you want is a smaller quality audience who’ll stick with you. And give you money.

They’re doing this with the intention of keeping their journalism paywall-free, and as widely accessible as possible, in the interests of ensuring the right to access public interest information in their countries to support open, transparent and accountable governance. In the process, they’re also discovering new revenue streams that, in two cases at least, point to potential business model sustainability.

Time for Western news organizations to wake up to escalating threats ported from the Global South

The lessons being learned through innovative responses to existential crises in the three cases examined here are broadly instructive for news organizations worldwide. They demonstrate successes, failures and agile responses to critical incidents along the trajectories of audience engagement innovation (see the audience engagement timelines we produced for each of the outlets in the full report).

We hope their experiences, trials, mistakes and experiments help guide news organizations globally, as the breakage of online communities caused by the manipulation and weaponization of audiences — at scale — is “ported” to the West. That is, orchestrated disinformation and harassment campaigns designed to disrupt democracy and chill media freedom are not the preserve of the Global South — they are increasingly manifesting in the West. As Ressa said, “We are democracy’s dystopian future.” It’s time, the West learned from their experiences.

How we did the research

The study is based on analysis of data from participatory action research, including fieldwork and interviews at three news organizations in the process of actively redefining audience engagement. For the research underpinning this report, project lead Julie Posetti was embedded in each of the three case organizations during February and March 2019. Additionally, she was added to internal discussion groups, editorial email lists, and agenda-setting diaries during her attachments to the newsrooms.

The main dataset consists of: Posetti’s field notes; content published by the outlets; 45 in-depth, interviews conducted in the field with editors, CEOs, journalists, product heads, social media editors, community managers, innovation and research lab leaders, and a range of others, including those occupying hybrid or bridge roles. In August and September this year, 13 follow-up interviews were conducted by the research team (via audio apps and email) to ensure accuracy and identify issues emerging since the original fieldwork.

Key findings

  1. Relationships with communities don’t just resist scale. Scale can break communities, especially when combined with various forms of platform capture including the weaponization of online communities and frequent changes to platforms’ products and policies.
  2. Once weaponized at scale, audiences can’t be recalibrated through direct engagement at scale – instead, deeper, narrower, and stronger is key: smaller audiences properly engaged can still play a significant role through collaboration, distribution, and impact.
  3. Orchestrated online harassment campaigns targeting news outlets and their journalists can be extremely damaging to them (creating significant health, safety, and security risks), but also to their online communities, impacting significantly on engagement work.
  4. Some audience engagement revolutions come full circle. For example, Rappler’s social media-born communities of action, leveraged to rapidly grow a news organization and effect change (at scale), often in partnership with government agencies, now thrive on physical encounter and help defend the outlet against the Duterte government.
  5. Daily Maverick’s resistance to social media distribution and brand-based audience engagement on the platforms, in favor of driving engagement through events and newsletters, may have contributed to its early membership success.
  6. Civic engagement through community partnerships and citizen reporting initiatives (e.g. Rappler’s Move.PH and The Quint’s MyReport) can still deliver loyal audiences and pathways to fresh revenue streams, even if some “at-scale” audiences have turned toxic.
  7. Technology still has an important role to play in audience engagement innovations, but that role should be editorial-led, with public interest oversight. That is the objective of Rappler’s new publishing platform, to be launched early 2020.
  8. A key indicator for journalism innovation is the capacity to remain audience-led and reboot engagement when online communities are weaponized, or when platforms tweak their algorithms or terms and conditions. (As The Quint discovered when Facebook-owned WhatsApp changed its terms, forcing them to move 150,000 subscribers to a new platform.)
  9. Despite the very real risks identified, partnerships with the platforms connected to journalism engagement work are still possible, as continued use of social media and specific projects like The Quint’s gender-oriented “Me, The Change” editorial campaign show.
  10. Two-way listening is essential for the development of strong, loyal communities of action built around editorial missions. But neither news organizations, nor individual journalists have to listen to all of the people all of the time.
  11. Building a membership program is not straightforward, and in these case studies it often involves the skillful combination of existing elements (e.g. events, community partnerships, citizen reporting portals) with new approaches (e.g. bespoke newsletters, access to behind-the-scenes content).
  12. Members are not seen as cash cows, but as loyal communities and collaborators on civic engagement, editorial, and product-development projects, potentially helping the outlets grow and improve.
  13. Loyal audiences and members can be seen as guardians of the outlets and their mission: providing challenging and independent journalism in countries where media freedom is under threat, and democratic norms are eroding.

Julie Posetti is global director of research at the International Center for Journalists and led the Journalism Innovation Project at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. Felix Simon is a journalist, researcher, and doctoral student at the Oxford Internet Institute at the University of Oxford and a research assistant at RISJ. Nabeelah Shabbir is conversation editor at The Correspondent.

Illustration by Tim Anger.

  1. This project was funded by the Facebook Journalism Project from May 2018 to September 2019. It ended when Facebook declined to renew funding. []
POSTED     Oct. 24, 2019, 9:06 a.m.
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