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Sept. 14, 2023, 1:46 p.m.
Reporting & Production

Want to boost local news subscriptions? Giving your readers a say in story ideas can help

“By providing a service that answers questions posed by audience members, audiences are more likely to reciprocate through subscriptions.”

Asking your audience for story ideas, and following through, can help increase subscriptions and improve audience perceptions of local news outlets, according to research published this summer.

In recent years, engaged journalism — a reporting approach that brings audiences into the journalism process and tries to respond directly to their concerns and questions — has gained prominence — and inspired a variety of reporting projects (as well as notes of caution). A study by Natalie (Talia) Jomini Stroud, a professor in the communications department at The Moody College of Communication at the University of Texas at Austin, and Emily Van Duyn, an assistant professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, looks for a causal relationship between engaged journalism and economic and audience support for newsrooms.

The study, which was published in the Journal of Communication in July, “investigates engaged journalism as a strategy for affecting news organizations’ revenue streams and improving news audience evaluations,” Stroud and Van Duyn wrote. They framed engaged journalism as an industry-specific example of “social exchange theory,” or “the premise that relationships are constructed by and maintained through an exchange of benefits.” In their view, research focused on the causal relationship between engaged journalism and economic and audience indicators of newsroom success can help newsrooms decide whether investing resources into this kind of reporting is worthwhile.

The benefits Stroud and Van Duyn found are small, but concrete, and worth considering for news outlets weighing expanding engaged journalism initiatives or implementing them for the first time. “Although the magnitude of the effect is unlikely to rescue local news,” Stroud and Van Duyn wrote, “it does show that engaged journalism can move local news in the right direction — toward increasing their bottom line and improving relationships with the community.”

A six-month test case

To understand the effects of implementing engaged journalism, Stroud and Van Duyn partnered with “20 U.S.-based local news sites owned by the same parent company and affiliated with local newspapers,” including four large sites, 10 medium sites, and six small sites. (The researchers granted the participating news outlets anonymity.) Within each of those three size groups, half of the sites served as controls, while the other half implemented an engaged journalism initiative between June and December 2018. The initiative was structured almost like a journalistic application of participatory budgeting — a civic model for directly engaging local citizens in government where citizens can propose and vote on projects for the government to fund — and entailed:

  • Newsrooms asking audiences what questions they wanted journalists to answer, and inviting them to submit those questions via the digital engagement platform Hearken;
  • Newsrooms curating the top questions and inviting the public to vote on their preferred question;
  • Reporting on the question receiving the most votes, and inviting the person who submitted that question to participate in the reporting process (though the researchers noted that “in practice, few question submitters participated in this step.”);
  • Publishing that reporting;
  • Restarting the process with a new round of question submissions.

Newsrooms had to publish two to three stories per month, conduct voting rounds monthly, and contact the question submitter at least once before reporting and at least once before publishing. (The engaged journalism initiatives were publicized on landing pages, and newsrooms had flexibility to give their own names to their engagement initiatives.)

Each newsroom participating in this study published an average of 26 stories during that six-month period, with 263 stories published in total. Over a third of stories focused on civic information (including local history and recreation topics), while others focused on economic development, the environment, and transportation systems, among other topics.

Newsroom perspectives going into the experiment

While some of the news sites had implemented engaged journalism initiatives previously, they were smaller and used different platforms, according to Stroud. “Prior to this study, several of the news organizations…already had engaged journalism initiatives at a smaller scale, such as closed Facebook groups or blogs, but saw the Hearken initiative as a way to further jumpstart audience interaction beyond Facebook or social media comments,” she told me in an email.

Stroud and Van Duyn report that “the news sites were generally eager to use the platform [Hearken], though they were not without concerns.” In a supplementary appendix to the study, they noted that about half of the involved news sites “seemed more concerned with technological development,” such as how the website landing page would look or be maintained, than with the reporting process around the engagement intervention. Newsrooms also had questions about making the interventions and landing pages consistent with their brands.

Each newsroom chose a reporter or reporters who acted as “the point-person for the intervention.” The journalist(s) could either report on the audience questions themselves or ask an editor to assign the ideas to other reporters. Stroud and Van Duyn note that “almost every paper had concerns about the workload for the point-person on staff, and this was especially true for papers that had recently faced layoffs or papers that had recently been acquired by the parent company.” Hearken, which provided training to each involved newsroom, recommended that this initiative replace other reporting responsibilities for the initiative point-person instead of adding to their regular workload. (Other research indicates that news organizations can have “some measure of success by using Hearken for involving audience members throughout the production of news,” but also suggests that implementation of audience engagement initiatives is “significantly shaped by organizational imperatives” and how exactly individual outlets approach audience-centered reporting.)

Newsrooms also expressed concerns about both the types of question that would be submitted, and who would submit questions. Several sites shared worries about trolls, and a few sites were apprehensive that they would “face questions that were either not newsworthy or too mundane to be of interest” — questions like “What happens when I flush my toilet?” Reporters also worried that the same people who already engaged on social media, by phone, and by email would submit questions — or that they would not get audience engagement at all. (One site described itself as “a reader-submitted desert.”)

One site also raised the concern that this engaged journalism initiative would disappoint audiences — “not the ‘[Woodward and] Bernstein and All the President’s Men,’ but what it ‘actually is, which is picking up the phone.’”

On the other hand, some newsrooms saw potential of the intervention to help them engage younger audiences and their “drive-by” audience who read about one article per month (one paper reported that “80% of their audience was part of this group”). Some sites also hoped this initiative would result in more productive, civil engagement than they typically got from forums like Facebook comments. And sites hoped the initiative could help increase trust in the news media writ large, even beyond their individual organization.

The findings

Stroud and Van Duyn examined several different variables. To measure the economic impact of an engaged journalism intervention, they kept track of new subscriptions, subscription renewals, pageviews, and return visits. To examine the audience perceptions of “news efficacy,” “responsiveness,” and “engagement,” the researchers administered a survey to the newsrooms before and after the intervention.

In the surveys, the researchers asked news site audiences questions about how represented they felt, to what extent they felt they had an influence on coverage, how responsive the newsroom was to community questions, and how much it cared about reader interests and helping the community. For the second survey, the researchers only contacted respondents who gave them permission to do a follow-up survey. Overall, an average of 200 people responded to both surveys (pre- and post-intervention) per site. (This audience was not representative of “demographics of the typical news user as determined by Pew Research Center,” and on average, respondents who completed both surveys were a bit older, more male, and more educated than those who only completed the first survey.)

The most economically promising finding for newsrooms interested in experimenting with engaged journalism: This intervention increased new subscriptions, with “an increase of 1.75 new subscriptions each day for intervention news sites compared with the control sites, all else equal.” That increase is significant relative to the daily average of 2.27 new subscriptions (though the authors noted that there was “considerable variation in subscription rates” so that number didn’t necessarily apply to individual sites). This finding suggested to the researchers that “by providing a service that answers questions posed by audience members, audiences are more likely to reciprocate through subscriptions.”

On the other hand, the intervention did not affect subscription renewals, pageviews, or return visits; the authors had hypothesized the intervention would boost each of these metrics. To Stroud and Van Duyn, this indicates that “engaged journalism holds the potential for building audience relationships that continue over time, rather than fizzle out after a brief interaction” and for turning “visitors into paying audiences, as opposed to systematically increasing their site visits.”

The intervention also seemed to affect audiences’ perception of and relationship with the newsrooms. Following the intervention, survey respondents “rated their news efficacy higher…found the news site more responsive…and felt that the news site was more engaged in the community,” affirming the researchers’ hypotheses. In other words, after a sustained engaged journalism initiative, “audience members had more favorable perceptions of the newspaper and a stronger sense of the news sites’ role in the infrastructure of their community.”

Van Duyn and Stroud did not find evidence of differences in the intervention effects based on the newsroom sizes — they looked out for, in particular, whether larger sites with more resources had more success with the intervention. They also found that the engaged journalism interventions didn’t appear to significantly affect trust.

Overall, Stroud and Van Duyn argue that “engaged journalism presents a worthwhile strategy for building sustainable and symbiotic relationships between local news and the communities they serve.”

“I think that the research demonstrates that engagement efforts can have both business and community benefits,” Stroud told me. “Although it isn’t a panacea, it can be helpful.”

In their conclusion, the researchers emphasized that they only examined a specific kind of intervention at a single newspaper media company — there could be different findings at other companies, or findings specific to television local news.

Stroud would like to see more research on these fronts, and others. In her view, “We need more work where academics collaborate with news organizations to understand what works and what doesn’t, in what circumstances, and for whom.”

Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash.

Sophie Culpepper is a staff writer at Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email (sophie@niemanlab.org) or Twitter DM (@s_peppered).
POSTED     Sept. 14, 2023, 1:46 p.m.
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