Technology has come a long way to make audience engagement a little easier on reporters. Gawker Media and the nascent Coral Project use algorithms to sort through reader comments, so that journalists don’t have to get too involved. I’ll argue that this automated method works best with large audiences (Gawker Media claims a total readership of 64 million people), but The Coral Project does intend to build something for smaller publications.
There are also less tech-intensive ways to engage an audience. At December’s gathering of Hacks/Hackers in New York, web developers and editors described how they actually shut down their comments sections and opened their email inboxes to develop better audience engagement.
Derek Mead, editor-in-chief of technology website Motherboard, said he closed the rarely used comments section and offered readers analog engagement, such as phone calls from reporters and editors, and a semi-handwritten newsletter. (Just to keep some things digital, Motherboard staff moved conversation strings to social media and corresponded with readers via email.)
The results: fewer interactions (read: less work) but much more meaningful discourse between Motherboard reporters and readers, as well as staff’s increased connectivity to what was being discussed on social media, Mead told assembled hacks and hackers.
The Marshall Project, which covers the criminal-justice beat, also closed its comments section and replaced it with letters sent to editor Bill Keller, who manually sorts through hard copies. And like Motherboard, conversation strings were moved onto social media, namely Facebook, audience editor Blair Hickman said.
Apparently, the labor involved in composing a letter to the editor is enough to turn off trolls and engage genuinely interested readers, Hickman said. (Also, The Marshall Project’s niche subject matter and relatively small readership probably save Keller from being buried in a pile of letters.)
Engagement via Facebook, on the other hand, has been a double-edged sword, Hickman described. The site’s “authentic name” policy ostensibly means users are more likely to behave with decorum than they would under an anonymous screen name. But personal information posted on some users’ profiles can become comment fodder when arguments boil over, a problem that Hickman said the news site was trying to solve.
For both The Marshall Project and Motherboard, unplugging the comments section has meant more time for journalists to be journalists, and more focused engagement for readers to be resources. And I’ll bet that brand loyalty goes a long way when the nonprofit Marshall Project passes the hat, or when Motherboard pitches native advertising at potential sponsors.
My next post will examine what The New York Times is doing to keep audience engagement flowing without letting in the riff raff. And at some point, I’ll discuss real-life events and gatherings as the ultimate analog form of audience engagement.