By Kevin J. Davis and Mark Lee Hunter”

Does listening pay? Except for anecdotal success stories, results to date are inconsistent, and more promising than absolutely convincing. Five years after Hearken CEO and co-founder Jenn Brandel first coined the term “public-powered journalism” it remains uncertain for many whether the process delivers measurable benefit commensurate with the level of investment. 

The best evidence to date comes from CLEF, the Lenfest Institute’s Community Listening and Engagement Fund, which focused on driving adoption of audience engagement and newsroom transparency tools and services. CLEF provided US$ 650,000 in grants to a number of American news organizations to explore the impact of various audience-facing technologies. The grants covered up to 85 percent of the first-year costs, which averaged about $8,500 per newsroom, of using a number of leading engagement-focused services, including Hearken, GroundSource, Listening Post Collective’s Membership Program, the Coral Project’s “Talk,” DocumentCloud and Muck Rock.  

Both Hearken and GroundSource warned that participants would be unable to connect the new activities directly to a lift in revenue within a one-year time frame. CLEF’s report says they were right, despite some positive effects:

“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. 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.”

The experiment nonetheless yielded key insights into success factors, as well as traps, for organizations that are pivoting to community-powered journalism.

The first key insight is that listening or engagement methods – we’ll use the two terms interchangeably here – aren’t plug and play. They work, says the report, only “if you work them.”  Often enough, newsrooms balked at that load, because “onboarding the tools, dealing with technical hurdles, and crafting successful strategies was more time-consuming than they anticipated.” In contrast, success stories were based on “consistent effort,” in particular “when finding meaningful ways to reach out to underserved audiences.” 

That segment includes a lot of people who walked away from the news industry over the past few decades, precisely because we no longer served their perceived needs.  Apparently, they don’t walk back to us just because we proclaim, “Hey! We’re listening now!” They want us to demonstrate that we’ve changed. We think they may understand, better than many of us, how profound that change will be. It’s not just an add-on to our business. It’s a transformation of the way we do business. There is a learning curve, and a doing curve.

The graphic below from the website Digital Marketer suggests the actions and pathways that are necessary to maintain steady customer interaction in a news enterprise. Note that to be effective, interaction must be spread across different functions (is a complaint due to a customer service failure or a content issue?), which means that within the shop, those functions must be in constant communication with each other:

Social Listening Feedback Loop

A second insight recalls both a fundamental finding of contemporary management scholarship, and the memoirs of industrial turnaround leaders like Carlos Ghosn: Successful change initiatives require top and bottom of the pyramid commitment. In news industry terms, the report observes, that means “a receptive newsroom culture, leadership buy-in, and a dedicated staff member.”  

The reality was often different. Reporters and editors hesitated to adopt new practices and processes, though the report hopefully notes that “even the exercise of focusing on audience engagement led to an internal shift in thinking for their staff.” 

Individuals made a difference: “Successful newsrooms often had ‘engagement superstars.’” They found support through “involvement in the national conversation about engaged journalism.”

These factors correlate with our experience, in which many listening initiatives were siloed, even when successful, and drivers were obliged to seek a wider community beyond the newsroom. Inside, the positive lessons learned are often contained within a particular beat or show. Rarely are the benefits spread across a news organization (just as the benefits of investigative teams, until recently, tended to stay within those teams). News organizations, as in other industries, are far more likely to compartmentalize than they are to integrate new processes across the enterprise. 

Recent evidence suggests a further issue: In direct proportion to the success of listening efforts, we will find ourselves facing a capacity crunch. Patrick Ferrucci and Jacob Nelson found that foundation-dependent news organizations, pushed by donors to listen harder, run out of slack: ‘“I think people need to know the news. But I can only write so much in a day,” one journalist said, “[and] when I have to do all this [engagement] stuff, it takes time and really harms the news product, I think.”’ 

The more successful you are at soliciting and analyzing feedback, the more resources are required to absorb it and turn it into meaningful interaction. That’s the price of customer relations management in contemporary journalism. We are hardly alone in finding it high.  When the Siebel software company built a stunningly successful growth engine in the 1990s through partnerships, its frontline managers spent half their time tracking interactions with those key customers. 

Are your reporters and managers ready for that? If not, who will do it? 

One emerging answer is the new role of engagement editor. An engagement editor uses social media to engage in conversations around content and events with the community. Engagement editors are also tasked with determining how and where to reach readers. Unlike marketing leads who are often siloed in the business side of the room, engagement editors may lead editorial meetings, as well as revenue meetings. 

Whatever your answer, the work must be reflected in your resource allocation. The CLEF Report confirms that it will take more than a year. We think it will continue so long as you’re in business, or you’ll go out of business.

Over to you:

You don’t have to be perfect at listening to your customers right away, but you do need to start experimenting and refining the best practices that result. Have you tried?

If you want to talk about your listening experiences, let us know. We’re always looking for cases to study and write about:

Excerpted from Community-Powered Journalism: A Manual for sustainability and growth in independent news (publication pending; copyright 2018-2020 Davis and Hunter, all rights reserved).