September 15, 2021

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Journalism curricula lack audience engagement. Here’s how to make up for it

By Kami Rieck, Bloomberg

“So, tell me more about audience engagement,” one of my journalism professors said. “What does a day at your job look like?”

This question became commonplace since I landed my first audience engagement internship about two years ago. Newsroom colleagues, classmates, industry veterans — even my journalism professors — did not understand the concept of audience journalism, let alone the fundamental role it plays in newsrooms.

Audience journalists are responsible for implementing engagement strategies that build loyal audiences. From social media management to newsletter writing to web production to graphic design, we report and research to connect readers to journalists and their work.

When more than eight in 10 Americans consume their news from digital devices, journalism schools should invest in audience engagement and social media curricula.

We have witnessed the deadly impacts of the spread of rampant misinformation on social media in the past year. As public trust in mainstream media declines, some journalists have been verbally and physically attacked on the job by community members. We have fallen short of accurately highlighting the stories of misrepresented and underrepresented communities.

Audience journalism strives to address each of these issues and much more. It would be a disservice to the public and our industry to not prepare students for journalism in the digital age and the ever-changing industry.

Adriana Lacy, an adjunct audience engagement professor at the University of Southern California, said digital courses should be required in journalism schools.

“Even if you’re working in print, or even if you’re working in broadcast, there’s always some sort of digital component,” Lacy said. “Regardless of the role you take in a newsroom, you’ll be relying on digital tools, so having an understanding of social media, headlines, SEO and metrics are really vital to do your job.”

Collaboration among reporters, editors and digital producers will increase if everyone in the newsroom has a shared understanding of digital products and platforms, Lacy said.

Incorporating digital tools and social media into the classroom will also lead to a more innovative and diverse journalism industry. At USC, Lacy sees many students major in journalism but switch to public relations or marketing because they don’t realize there are newsroom jobs outside of reporting. Offering digital courses can help students find a place in the newsroom, from audience engagement producer to SEO manager.

Brittany Cheng, a senior digital analyst at NPR, said she would not be in her current position if it weren’t for an audience engagement course she took at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland in 2016.

The class primarily focused on audience analytics. She said she learned the ins and outs of Google Analytics and Chartbeat, how to use metrics to inform editorial strategy and how to write headlines for the web.

“A lot of modern newsrooms are looking for young, savvy digital journalists who care about where that story goes after it’s published,” she said.

Cheng is now an adjunct lecturer at her alma mater teaching audience engagement and analytics with the hope of helping students understand audience-first journalism and how to use data to increase the impact of stories. She tells her students that no one is more equipped for jobs in the social media space than them, because they grew up digital natives.

“Social media platforms come and go, but the skills you can learn from each platform and best practices can translate from platform to platform,” Cheng said.

I first learned that audience engagement extended beyond curating a company’s Twitter account at my university’s student newspaper and an internship at The Boston Globe.

In an ideal world, a news organization’s reader base should be reflective of the community the news organization serves. At many newsrooms I interned at, subscribers were disproportionately white, older and male. Audience engagement allowed me to reach younger readers through text messaging and social media. I learned that daily Instagram usage was most popular among Latinos, Asian Americans and African Americans.

This research informed how I approached Instagram strategies for The Boston Globe and Bloomberg Opinion, and I strived to invest more resources into the platform. I created breaking news posts, quote graphics, a daily newsletter and launched reader callouts on Instagram.

Audience editors are responsible for meeting readers where they are. Whether texting your audience breaking news updates during a deadly winter storm or moderating a live audio event on Twitter, digital platforms allow the public to participate in the news.

Students and young journalists who do not have access to digital media courses can gain experience through student newspapers and internships. Cheng used her college newspaper as a sandbox to experiment with different metric tools and create weekly analytics reports.

At my student publication, I wrote newsletters and social copy, produced videos for social media and increased my publication’s Instagram following. I learned to distribute information in a concise and easy-to-understand manner across various platforms, which prepared me for future audience internships. Free online courses in audience engagement, social media, digital strategy and analytics are great for developing skills outside of the classroom, too.

Internships are invaluable for on-the-ground training and building your portfolio. As an engagement fellow at The Texas Tribune, I learned to add alternative text to images on social media to make content more accessible to visually impaired people. I wrote and sent mobile push alerts during the 2020 presidential election as a fellow at Business Insider.

Cultivating a strong relationship between journalists and the people they serve is a goal newsrooms are constantly striving towards.  Prioritizing digital journalism in curricula is a first step.

Kami Rieck is a social media editor at Bloomberg Opinion and student at Boston University. She has previously worked on the audience engagement and social media teams at The Texas Tribune, The Boston Globe and Business Insider. Her work has been published in The Lily, Poynter, The Boston Globe and Nieman Reports.

Getting started with audience engagement

Interested in learning more about engagement and digital journalism, even if your school doesn’t offer classes in it? Here are some resources to help you get started.

Things I wish I’d learned in journalism school

This newsletter issue is part of The Lead’s “Things I wish I’d learned in journalism school” series, intended to fill in schools’ gaps and provide practical advice. Previous issues from the past few weeks:

One story worth reading

On the 20th anniversary of 9/11, it’s worth looking back at the many things journalists could have done better in their initial coverage, Eileen McNamara writes for WBUR. “As we remember this week the almost 3,000 people who died and the 6,000 others who were injured that day, let’s not forget the abandonment by too many in journalism of the skepticism and rigorous reporting that are the hallmarks of an independent press,” she writes. The mistakes made when covering 9/11 provide valuable lessons for the next generation of journalists.

Opportunities and trainings

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Taylor Blatchford is a journalist at The Seattle Times who independently writes The Lead, a newsletter for student journalists. She can be reached at blatchfordtaylor@gmail.com…
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