As user participation turns 10, media leaders discuss the future of audience engagement
As the day ended at Hearst Tower in Manhattan, Jay Rosen began talking about a concept he has been studying for decades.
The subject? Audience engagement with the news. The example? Comedian John Oliver.
Rosen, a professor at New York University, found a brash example to close 10UP, a summit held by Poynter and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation Monday to examine the last 10 years of user participation in the news.
He showed an old clip recently popularized by the "Last Week Tonight" host featuring ex-Tribune Company boss Sam Zell barking at a reporter. His order, served up to a defiant employee with a side of profanity: Cover what readers care about.
Rosen didn't take issue with Zell's strong language or his impolitic attitude. Instead, he objected to the journalist's protestations — a somewhat unconventional stance among the journalism community.
But perhaps Rosen's take wasn't entirely unexpected at the summit, which brought together journalists working in audience engagement at organizations including The New York Times, Time Inc and The Associated Press, among others. About 80 industry leaders gathered on 57th Street in Manhattan for panels and speeches that attempted to answer important questions about user engagement — or at least solve some piece of the puzzle.
The summit was timed to the 10-year anniversary of CNN's iReport, the citizen journalism team at CNN. After opening remarks by Lila King, iReport's founder, many speakers reminisced about the successes and failures of the last decade, treating those endeavors as lessons for the future.
"We as an industry could have gotten together sooner to talk about how we do this work," said Eric Carvin, social media editor at The Associated Press. This sentiment was common: Introspection and criticism as professionals on hand welcomed the opportunity to learn from the past.
One of the speakers, Time Inc editorial director Callie Schweitzer, cited the rise of social media as making journalism "so much more transparent and thoughtful." But that openness comes with big responsibilities, she said.
"...There are some real challenges, and the audience team is the first line of defense,” she said. “This is one of the most important jobs in the newsroom, of reaching readers.”
Editors also looked forward to areas where journalists could push the national conversation — and the comments section — to more constructive places.
"You are trying to get out there and change hearts and minds," said Justin Bank, senior editor of internet for The New York Times. "Pageviews are great, but they don’t get you as far as love for a story."
Carrie Brown, director of the social journalism masters program at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, agreed, adding that it's important to "think of journalism as a service rather than a product."
Many aspects of user participation were discussed, ranging from social media to the oft-lamented comments section and deploying user-generated content in breaking news situations.
Each group focused on a different topic: past failures of businesses in outreach, finding good candidates for audience engagement jobs, reaching non-traditional audiences and the relationship between American media and the public.
Speakers at the summit made a point of showing both the good and the bad of the last decade. Three separate "Let’s Talk Failure" segments took 15 minutes to lament mistakes, including the failure to grow Studio 360 and miscalculations at ProPublica. But above all, there was a prevailing optimism about the future.
Jennifer Brandel, the founder and CEO of Hearken, saw solutions to problems with engagement in simple terms.
"That's my favorite, breaking down all the stupid groupings everyone has and saying you're a human I'm a human, let's work together," she said.
Rosen finished the day with remarks that placed much of the responsibility for healthy audience interactions on the media and importuned journalists to be receptive to readers.
"There is no contradiction between listening to them and telling them the hard truth," he said.