June 23, 2018

LinkedIn isn’t usually a priority for newsrooms’ audience engagement teams. But the network can have more value than outlets think, a group of University of Maryland students found in a collaborative research project with the USA Today Network this spring.

One journalism class’s research was the first tangible example of a growing partnership between Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism and the USA Today Network. Professor Ronald Yaros partnered with journalists in the network to teach his class on engagement and audience growth this spring.

Eighteen students split into groups to examine how news content could be shared to readers outside the traditional print audience, using LinkedIn, Reddit, Instagram and Pinterest. The network shared real-time analytics with the students, who used tools including CrowdTangle, Parsely, Adobe Analytics and Chartbeat to find patterns and recommend strategies.

The students found that LinkedIn could be a valuable way for newsrooms to reach certain target audiences who were trying to improve their career prospects. These audience groups used LinkedIn at much higher rates, they found, so the students experimented with tailoring content to that channel.

In one example, reporters at the York Daily Record in Pennsylvania found that state prison workers were accumulating so much overtime they were being paid six-figure salaries. Rather than framing the story as an investigative piece about taxpayer money being abused, the students took another approach: How does the overtime system work in Pennsylvania, and how can nonexempt workers leverage that to earn more?

“We were positively surprised that we were able to reach people on LinkedIn with content we already had,” said Mackenzie Warren, the senior director of news strategy for the USA Today Network. “That matchmaking had never happened before. We’d never introduced members of these audience groups to these types of content.”

Direct impacts on strategy

Lauraine Genota, a Maryland student who’s now graduated, worked with a group to examine the broader effects of social media on USAToday.com’s web traffic. They examined the days in 2017 with the most and least website pageviews and found that on days with high web traffic, photo galleries generated more traffic from social media than written articles.

Now an intern at Education Week in Bethesda, Maryland, Genota said the collaboration with the network helped her learn the value of engagement as a complement to traditional reporting.

“You can write everything you want to write about, but does it matter if no one is looking at it?” she said. “Knowing what your audience wants from you can help you figure out where you can look for stories and what you can write about in order to also help your organization build their audience.”

The class’s findings have directly translated to strategic changes in engagement, Warren said. The digital hubs that serve the network’s 87 smaller newsrooms are applying the students’ research strategies, and the network’s 15 larger newsrooms are adding a specific level of engagement focusing on LinkedIn, Reddit, Instagram and Pinterest.

“We wouldn’t have done so if it wasn’t for this class,” Warren said. “These are 15 newsrooms where the core parts of our social tactic have changed for the better because of what we did in the class.”

The partnership will continue, Warren said — in the future, Maryland students at the school’s Capital News Service will work with the USA Today Network to deepen reporting and editing for their investigative projects. The network is also working with the university to plan events and speakers.

“The students and organizations are both learning, and it’s a win-win situation,” Yaros said. “We both got some good stuff out of it.”

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