Audience Engagement = Audience Respect

When they complain, we should feel some obligation to explain — even if that goes against the grain of the way we have always operated.

Adam Tinworth
Adam Tinworth

Journalism, as a profession, seems to be deeply resistent to incorporating certain ideas into its practice. 15 years ago, when I first moved into editorial development, we talked endlessly about using the internet — then largely blogs and forums — to expose more of our processes to readers. And, of course, to involve them in our journalism. It worked. It built trust with our readers that could be usefully converted into subscriptions.

A decade and a half on, we're still talking about it. We've even given it a fancy new name — engaged journalism — and we write playbooks and think pieces on it. And yet, it still really hasn't penetrated the big institutions of journalism, and that's creating problems.

Why is this NOT news?

To take an example from the weekend, last Friday the High Court of England and Wales decided that the government illegally failed to publish details of billions of pounds worth of pandemic procurement contracts within the correct timeframe. People — largely on Twitter — asked why this was coming below the latest piece of Royal drama on most news sites, and why it faded as a story so quickly.

This wasn't the standard “You won't see this in the mainstream media!” complaint — which is usually (a) untrue and (b) used by borderline conspiracy theorists. This was a genuine question of news judgement that seemed at odds with a significant chunk of the audience.

In the Monday edition of his newsletter Martin Bryant muses on the reaction of many newsrooms to this:

I won’t judge on which side is right here, but I will say that by quickly moving on from the story, news outlets are fostering a growing sense of distrust of journalists. It really does behove editors to be sensitive to these complaints from the public. These aren’t just silly people who don’t understand news, getting worked up about nothing; they are the audience, and they deserve respect.

He's hit on something here: there is a thread in journalism that believes that the audience is there to be served and to consume, but is not there to be listened to. It's almost never expressed in terms that blunt, but there is a real sense that sometimes the audience is secondary to some abstract sense of serving NEWS.

To respect is to explain

Martin doesn't argue that editors should let their audience dictate their newslist. Instead, he's just calling for a little respect:

That doesn’t mean editors should make a big deal out of stories that don’t deserve it. It’s just that when there’s significant outcry about editorial choices, they should run prominent explainers about why that hotly debated story isn’t being given more prominence.

This, I think, is the point. If you want to build trust — a relationship — with an audience, you have to be prepared to explain yourself.

Some sectors of journalism are quite good at this. Consumer mags often explain editorial choices and mistakes on their letters page, for example. More deeply embedding this in the way we work across all sectors — even the lofty heights of the national and international news outlets — could go a long way to addressing our on-going trust crisis.

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Adam is a lecturer, trainer and writer. He's been a blogger for over 20 years, and a journalist for more than 30. He lectures on audience strategy and engagement at City, University of London.