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2020
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7

Campaign coverage as test bed for engagement experiments

“Get ready to answer your door not only to campaigns’ canvassers but also to a local or regional reporter — especially if you live in a rural area or are a member of a marginalized community.”

In 2019, media trust projects and engagement initiatives continued to proliferate across the world’s newsrooms, especially here in the United States as we approach the 2020 presidential election. New nonprofit newsrooms are emerging every month, such as the new Oakland newsroom from Berkeleyside. The for-profit engagement consultant firm Hearken is thriving, expanding in Europe and growing revenues by 40 percent, according to the co-founder and CEO Jennifer Brandel.

I see these trends continuing, and as a result, I predict we’ll see a different kind of primary and election coverage than in previous election cycles. Horserace coverage will still be the bread-and-butter of certain national outlets such as CNN and Fox — but at the local and mid-sized outlet level, engagement will be the name of the game.

Get ready to answer your door not only to campaigns’ canvassers but also to a local or regional reporter — especially if you live in a rural area or are a member of a marginalized community. Newsrooms of any size looking for support in this work should check out the free Citizens Agenda, a step-by-step guide for a different kind of election coverage driven by “regular people” (as we say in the newsroom) as part of a partnership between Hearken, Jay Rosen’s Membership Puzzle Project, and Joy Mayer’s Trusting News project.

My concrete predictions:

  • In the short term: Journalists will try things on engagement and fail — with the failure offering a dangerous opportunity for reporters and editors to give up on engagement work. (“Well, we tried it, and it didn’t work.”) But these experiments will also result in a wave of revisions to fundamental ways of reporting going forward — ones that value relationship building with audience members and that give up some control over story generation.
  • In the medium term: Engagement-centric startups will multiply, only to fade out within 3 to 5 years as funding for such initiatives wanes. But new ones, with new financial models, will take their place. Journalism schools need to make teachings engagement skills core to their offerings if they haven’t already (and many have not). Those that don’t will see declining enrollment. Many commercial news outlets will transform into nonprofits, following The Salt Lake Tribune’s lead as they look for ways to survive.
  • In the long term: The concept of “success” for journalism endeavors will change, and with it the scaffolding of the media landscape. “Sustainability” becomes less valued — or at least no longer expected — as news audiences adjust to uneven coverage, laser in on one or two sources of news, and give more money out of pocket to local newsrooms or nonprofit outlets. Journalists will run around throwing spaghetti projects on the wall and seeing what sticks (though not always giving it enough time to). New information actors, both professional and amateur, will appear and disappear — and appear again — throughout the media ecosystem, getting absorbed into existing operations and changing information streams.

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

In 2019, media trust projects and engagement initiatives continued to proliferate across the world’s newsrooms, especially here in the United States as we approach the 2020 presidential election. New nonprofit newsrooms are emerging every month, such as the new Oakland newsroom from Berkeleyside. The for-profit engagement consultant firm Hearken is thriving, expanding in Europe and growing revenues by 40 percent, according to the co-founder and CEO Jennifer Brandel.

I see these trends continuing, and as a result, I predict we’ll see a different kind of primary and election coverage than in previous election cycles. Horserace coverage will still be the bread-and-butter of certain national outlets such as CNN and Fox — but at the local and mid-sized outlet level, engagement will be the name of the game.

Get ready to answer your door not only to campaigns’ canvassers but also to a local or regional reporter — especially if you live in a rural area or are a member of a marginalized community. Newsrooms of any size looking for support in this work should check out the free Citizens Agenda, a step-by-step guide for a different kind of election coverage driven by “regular people” (as we say in the newsroom) as part of a partnership between Hearken, Jay Rosen’s Membership Puzzle Project, and Joy Mayer’s Trusting News project.

My concrete predictions:

  • In the short term: Journalists will try things on engagement and fail — with the failure offering a dangerous opportunity for reporters and editors to give up on engagement work. (“Well, we tried it, and it didn’t work.”) But these experiments will also result in a wave of revisions to fundamental ways of reporting going forward — ones that value relationship building with audience members and that give up some control over story generation.
  • In the medium term: Engagement-centric startups will multiply, only to fade out within 3 to 5 years as funding for such initiatives wanes. But new ones, with new financial models, will take their place. Journalism schools need to make teachings engagement skills core to their offerings if they haven’t already (and many have not). Those that don’t will see declining enrollment. Many commercial news outlets will transform into nonprofits, following The Salt Lake Tribune’s lead as they look for ways to survive.
  • In the long term: The concept of “success” for journalism endeavors will change, and with it the scaffolding of the media landscape. “Sustainability” becomes less valued — or at least no longer expected — as news audiences adjust to uneven coverage, laser in on one or two sources of news, and give more money out of pocket to local newsrooms or nonprofit outlets. Journalists will run around throwing spaghetti projects on the wall and seeing what sticks (though not always giving it enough time to). New information actors, both professional and amateur, will appear and disappear — and appear again — throughout the media ecosystem, getting absorbed into existing operations and changing information streams.

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

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