Why are there so many women in audience engagement?

The Cohort is Poynter's bi-monthly newsletter about women kicking ass in digital media.

Last week, Joy Mayer and I organized a rad audience engagement summit in New York. It turned out really well and there were a handful of Cohort readers there. (Hi ladies! I’m still grinning ear-to-ear after meeting you.)

The event included 20 speakers — 14 were women. Which is awesome. And, considering the topic, maybe not so surprising.

During a morning panel, Niketa Patel brought up the question of why there are so many women in audience engagement roles. The panelists discussed some of the soft skills and personality traits that women are more likely to offer. Women tend to be more empathetic and collaborative, for example. All fair and valid points.

Carrie Brown had a different take: In the early days of social media, community building and user participation roles were seen as unimportant, she explained. People working in the trenches were some of the first to pick up social in newsrooms. Combine that reality with those soft skills, and voilà — you’ve got a lot of women working in audience engagement

(She’s not the first to point this out. More than twice as many women as men responded to Julia Haslanger’s callout for social media editor salary info. And Alana Hope Levinson’s essay, The Pink Ghetto of Social Media, is definitely worth reading and discussing.)

Today, social media and audience engagement jobs in newsrooms look much differently than they did a decade ago. Once misunderstood roles with unclear value, these positions are now vital to audience and revenue growth.

Many of the women who first took on those roles in newsrooms have climbed up the career ladder to positions of leadership. Several female former journalists also landed at social networks, including the women who head up the news and partnerships teams at Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

I, too, moved up the proverbial ladder pretty quickly. In my seven years at CNN, I scored four promotions. I became a manager at 25. And now, I’m a faculty member at Poynter, significantly younger than my counterparts.

I work damn hard and believe I deserve the career success I’ve had. But I also believe that I wouldn’t be where I am if I didn’t start in a specialized field that turned out to be essential. Like most people working in audience engagement early on, my team was largely isolated from internal politics and jockeying. I had the opportunity to thrive with little competition.

But what about the women working at the bottom rungs of the ladder in social today? Consider that women were the first computer programmers. Now that audience engagement is valued, is there a risk of being shut out? And considering how awful social media can be for women, is this a specialty we really want to dominate? I still think yes, especially if we can continue to innovate, push for new ideas, build teams and navigate a path for job advancement.

While the career growth may not be as explosive as it was a decade ago, there are still some clear lessons for women looking to move up in their careers:

Say yes to new opportunities. Whether you’re early in your career or at a point where you’re ready for change, take a risk! When it comes to joining brand new initiatives, the payoffs can be huge.

Don’t forget to look out for other women. Spread the word to strong candidates when new positions open. Build your cohort! Unlike other areas of journalism where women may be outnumbered, audience engagement is an area with built-in support. That network clearly benefitted women advancing in their careers.

Last but not least, be bold with your vision.

Here’s the secret about new roles: No one knows how to do them. If you’re in a brand-new position in your organization, take charge! Come up with goals, strategies and approaches for the year(s) ahead instead of waiting for a cue from leadership. Advocate for the hires you need. Make a kickass presentation that will wow the bosses. The more confident you are in the direction of your team, the more confident higher-ups will be in you.


I’ve been talking about 40 Better Hours for months, and it’s finally (almost) here! The magic happens on Sept. 19. Here’s a preview of what to expect.

Things worth reading
Carlson didn’t get sexually harassed by her boss because she worked for conservative media any more than I was sexualized by my teacher because I was a grad student.” This personal essay on workplace harassment is a smart read. Amen amen amen to this Washington Post article: Stop touting the crazy hours you work. It helps no one. BuzzFeed’s Tamerra Griffin, a member of this year’s Leadership Academy for Women in Digital Media and all-around amazing person, is featured in a lovely video profile. And in rage-inducing news: A new study shows that men are 25 percent more likely than women to get a raise when they ask for one. It must be because they say “please” and not because of the patriarchy or anything, right?

Meet Melissa
Melissa Hall knows a lot about the growth that can come with joining a brand new team. She was hired at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in January to form a vertical focused on mobile audiences and hyper-local news in four counties surrounding Atlanta. “It’s like the equivalent of zoned editions back in the day — does anyone have the money to do that anymore? — but only on digital platforms,” she explained.

Since joining the AJC, Hall, 33, has seen a lot of change. Her team has experienced major growth over the past few months and she’s constantly pushing for innovation. She answered the following questions over email.

What’s the toughest part of your job?
My team is brand new. I arrived at the end of January and was given one dedicated reporter and a couple of loaners. For about five months, we experimented with content and distribution methods that were outside of the traditional newspaper workflow. We dug into every pageview, every referral, every search keyword to determine our impact on our readers. Sure, some of our stories made it into the print edition, but our only concern was that digital audience. We began to shift our publishing schedules to match the times our readers were online. We reworked and reworked headlines to maximize the audience. We worked with our social media folks to try to game the Facebook algorithm. All of that was hard work, but it paid off. Just this month, we’ve added eight additional people to try to replicate that success in other Atlanta-area communities. The toughest part of my job today is working that same level of experimentation and deep analysis of readership into an expanded team.

What’s the most rewarding?
I love working as a team toward a common goal.

Tell me about your team. How many people do you manage? What’s the experience like? What’s the biggest challenge?
I manage seven (soon to be nine) hardworking, passionate journalists who teach me something new every day. My folks are entrepreneurial, self-motivated and will put up a fight when needed. They all have a sense of humor, and I cannot tell you how much I appreciate that. The biggest challenge may be keeping up with them. These folks keep me on my toes, asking the hard questions and pushing back when they don’t agree. I personally like that. I’d rather work with reporters who have strong opinions I don’t agree with than people who have no opinion at all. Let’s help shape each other. I’m not just here to shape you.

What’s something that you’re particularly proud of?
I am most proud of the work we did early on to understand the needs of our audience. It is that hard work that led to a huge growth in audience for us, which convinced my bosses to allow me to hire eight additional people. A newspaper adding eight bodies! In 2016! That is absolutely unheard of. That kind investment in local journalism just doesn’t happen these days, and for that I am beyond grateful to work at the AJC.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received in your career?
BE VOCAL ABOUT WHAT YOU WANT. Yes, all caps! It is the single most important advice I’ve ever gotten. If you’re good at your job and you don’t ever express an interest in doing anything else, you may well stay in that same role forever. Managers are busy and often self-involved. (I know for certain because I am one now.) Sometimes they need you to knock them over the head with your career goals. When you’re vocal about what you want your next steps to be, you’ve made yourself top of mind when that next step becomes available. It’s simple, but many people don’t think to talk to their managers about their own aspirations. Good managers will regularly open the door for talk about the future, but others may need a little help.

The burnout struggle is real, especially in journalism. How do you avoid it?
This one’s simple. I always look to innovate. Innovation is fun — even when it doesn’t pay off — and keeps you focused on the future.

Big props to Erica Hernandez for recommending Hall as a woman to feature. Thanks, Erica!

THANK YOU to everyone who filled out the Cohort reader survey. Your feedback was crazy helpful, and I now have a giant list of amazing, inspiring women to feature in future issues. If you haven’t filled out the survey yet, you can still chime in.

Word of mouth can’t be beat. Pass this newsletter on to coworkers and friends!

The Cohort is part of Poynter’s Leadership Academy for Women in Digital Media. Props to Kristen Hare, who owns the best dresses, for her newsletter edits and insight.

  • Profile picture for user katiehawk

    Katie Hawkins-Gaar

    Katie Hawkins-Gaar is the organizer of Poynter’s Leadership Academy for Women in Digital Media. She was previously Poynter’s digital innovation faculty member, and taught journalists how to make the most of social media, understand audience engagement, rethink workflows and foster creativity.


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