February 18, 2013

Talk about engagement with a journalist these days, and the conversation turns quickly to social media. Who can deny the influence of social media, which now serves as a news source for one-third of adults under 30?

If you really want to connect with people, though, social media is only part of the equation. Digital can be a proxy for interaction, but it works better when paired with the real thing.

At the Chicago Tribune, our newsroom employs a chain of engagement in a program we call Trib Nation. It includes actions that are familiar to the most fiercely orthodox readers and journalists: running corrections. It includes live programs created by journalists in auditoriums around Chicago and one-on-one conversations that follow them. It includes social Tweetups with digital natives and invitations to join us for conversations at our headquarters in Tribune Tower.

When I took part last fall in Poynter’s Social Media Webinar Series to talk about “Finding Your Social Media Voice,” a number of participants seized on the idea that “social media” could involve more than digital technology. Done well, it also involves a handshake and sincere conversation.

There’s a common thread: Know who you’re talking to, so you can know what they need. At the Tribune we recognize that journalism is no longer purely mass media; it’s about this series of personal connections that happen to add up into the tens of thousands.

“In the end, our success will depend on establishing a relationship with the people who come to the Tribune each day in all of its forms,” said Chicago Tribune Editor Gerould Kern in a Trib Nation article.

In June 2011, the Tribune reacted to readers’ requests for deeper coverage by adding 44 news pages a week to the paper, as well as Web innovations, news applications, and mobile and tablet editions. In 2012, Trib Nation staged more than 100 news events, including public policy discussions, author talks and seminars. We’ll do the same in 2013.

The tools are many. The goal is simple, Kern said in editor’s messages to Tribune readers: “Strengthening the bond between our readers and the Chicago Tribune.” How does the Tribune do that? Here’s part of our playbook:

Take corrections and clarifications seriously

The most basic and meaningful social interaction newsrooms have with their readers has to do with being accurate, verifiable and fair. When we fail to live up to that compact, our readers — and our colleagues — expect us to point out the error quickly and clear it up. That’s about trust. And trust is crucial to strong relationships.

We use Page 2 of the Chicago Tribune to correct errors made in print, and make sure to reference errors on digital stories after they’ve been corrected online and in our archives.

Explain the newsgathering process

Readers want to know how journalism works and why we make certain decisions. On our Trib Nation blog and in a prominent space on Page 2 (right alongside the corrections, actually), Tribune journalists talk about how they got surprising stories and controversial photographs, and why they went after them in the way they did.

Editors discuss tough calls. That transparency goes a long way toward dismantling the wall between a newsroom and a skeptical community, as we often hear from readers at our own events and in other circumstances when we interact with the community.

Hold community-based events

When many of us began our careers, institutions gave people credibility. Take a look around lately, and it’s easy to see that institutions, including news organizations, are precisely what people don’t trust.

In 2010, the Tribune launched a full range of events designed to put readers in regular contact with Tribune journalists, newsmakers and the interview process. During most of our programs, which we charge admission for, we offer attendees a chance to mingle and continue the conversation afterward, often with snacks or a glass a wine.

When people talk with a reporter or editor from the Tribune, or with a newsmaker, they walk away with a more realistic impression of journalism than they arrived with. We also schedule regular meetups in the community, just to talk with readers when we aren’t rushing to a deadline. In fact, that’s one way we learned people would be interested in programmed events.

Engage in a conversation with your audience

Pick a topic, any topic, and invite a dozen people with surprising vantage points to lunch with a dozen journalists. That describes our regular Community Conversation lunches with local connectors and thought leaders.

In 2012, the monthly gatherings have covered the status of women, volunteering, personal debt, pets and voting. We announce upcoming luncheons on Page 2 and via social media. We don’t charge anything, and we never guarantee coverage. But try listening to a bunch of smart people sharing fresh ideas and critical observations without pulling out your notepad. It’s not that easy.

Embrace social media

It’s critical to engage with your audience on social networking sites. Research and common sense says this audience includes younger news consumers who have come of age in an era in when thoughtful, engaged individuals are sometimes more trusted than institutions.

Social media offers opportunities to correct assumptions, tune into trending topics and talk with readers who are deeply interested in the subjects specialist reporters cover. Plus, it’s highly quantifiable — which means it’s easy to see what’s hitting the mark and what isn’t in time to adjust your aim.

“Trib Nation underscores our role as convener of the important conversations. And it changes the way people view the Tribune and talk about the Tribune,’’ Joycelyn Winnecke, the Tribune’s vice president and associate editor who oversees reader engagement programs, said via email. “We see this as an extension of our journalism and, in the case of events, a new platform for publishing our journalism. Readers make a connection that goes far beyond the written page, the website or the mobile app.”

Bonus: Learning curve

We found that we got better at doing engagement with practice. As I was writing this, Poynter’s Mallary Tenore asked me when we failed. The answer is: It was always about experimenting, not failure or success.

When some things worked better than others, we followed those paths. We could always learn quickly from it — finding a better venue for certain types of events, for example, or a better way to communicate with readers online, or getting a feel for managing a discussion with several participants. We improve all the time, but it doesn’t feel like failure. It’s hard to really blow it when you’re coming into the conversation honestly and curiously.

I would say a key thing we learned was that the best engagement didn’t need to happen on our turf. A few years ago, I learned a great deal from some of the diverse thinkers that Joy Mayer and Reuben Stern assembled for a conference on “The Engagement Metric” at the University of Missouri’s Reynolds Journalism Institute.

It’s worth reading Stern and Mayer’s report, and interesting to see the people of varied backgrounds they assembled to think differently about journalism. One of the panelists was cultural anthropologist Matt Bernius, who mentioned studies in which more trust flowed from interactions in a place that was comfortable to the distrustful party.

In other words: Get out of your comfort zone and into more church basements, community centers, homes and main streets to have casual conversations. I have to say, it’s a pretty rewarding path to follow.

James Janega is the Trib Nation manager at the Chicago Tribune.

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