Curbing the Decline of Local News Through Engaged Journalism

Faced with declining revenue and loss of public trust, local newsrooms across the U.S. are struggling to stay afloat. Practicing engaged journalism, where newsrooms build relationships with their audience by responding to community concerns, can offer a lifeline.

A new study published by Center for Media Engagement Director Talia Stroud and University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign Assistant Professor Emily Van Duyn examines the effect of a form of engaged journalism where newsrooms report on audience-submitted questions via the Hearken platform. The results show that engaged journalism can not only strengthen the relationship between a newsroom and its community but can also provide much-needed revenue.

Study Details

The Center for Media Engagement partnered with 20 U.S.-based local news sites owned by the same parent company to take part in an engagement journalism experiment. Participating newsrooms were divided into three groups (large, medium, and small) based on their circulation and web traffic numbers. Within each group, half were randomly assigned to launch an engaged journalism initiative and the other half continued their current engagement practices.

Organizations that launched the initiative asked their audience to submit questions they wanted journalists to answer about their community. The news sites created landing pages that included information about the initiative and details on how to submit and vote on questions using Hearken’s digital platform.

Over a six-month period, reporters at each organization were asked to write two to three stories per month based on the top-voted audience questions. New voting rounds were conducted each month. The topics of the articles varied: just over a third were about civic information, such as local history and recreation, 18% were about economic development, 12% were about environment and planning, and about 10% were about transportation systems.

Effect on Revenue

To determine the economic impact of using engaged journalism, the study examined new subscriptions, subscription renewals, and web traffic (specifically, page views and return visits).

Newsrooms that participated in the initiative saw an increase in new subscriptions, but not subscription renewals. This suggests that while engaged journalism can help newsrooms increase their bottom line through new subscribers, people who were already subscribed decide to cancel or continue support based on reasons other than engagement initiatives. It is also important to note that the increase in subscribers was statistically detectable, but did not result in massive increases in the newsroom’s subscriber base. In other words, Hearken can boost new subscriptions, but is unlikely to be a sole solution for a revenue-strapped newsroom.

Participation in the engaged journalism initiative did not affect web traffic. It’s possible that one of the reasons page views were unaffected was because they can vary dramatically from day to day due to factors outside of a newsroom’s control, such as whether another publication shares a link. The lack of effect on return visits also suggests that the initiative serves mainly to turn visitors into paying audiences, as opposed to systematically increasing their site visits.

Effect on Audience Relationship

Before the initiative, news audiences were asked questions to evaluate how they felt about their local news organization’s brand, how represented they felt by the news organization, and how they felt about the news site’s engagement efforts. Around six months later, they were asked the same questions again.

Participation in the engaged journalism initiative resulted in more positive audience attitudes toward the news organization. People felt that they were more able to have a say in news coverage. They also thought the organization was more responsive to and engaged with the community.

Takeaways for Newsrooms

The study shows that engaged journalism can help newsrooms strengthen relationships with the communities they serve while also benefiting the bottom line. By asking the community to weigh in on the reporting process, newsrooms can also learn about audience interests and identify untapped areas of coverage that resonate with audiences.

Though the benefits are clear, news organizations may have reservations about the practicality of implementing engaged journalism initiatives. A few common concerns raised by newsrooms that participated in the study are addressed below, along with recommendations from the Hearken team that provided training on the platform.

  • Staff workload: Workload was a major concern for most newsrooms, especially those that faced recent layoffs. Hearken recommends that the workload from the initiative is given as a substitute for the point person’s work rather than added to their work.
  • Question quality: Several newsrooms worried that introducing question submissions would open the door for trolls. Some were also worried they would face questions that were either not newsworthy or too mundane to be of interest. Hearken suggested that these sites either ignore the trolls or treat their questions as deliberate.
  • Repeat submitters: Many newsrooms were concerned they would repeatedly hear from the same submitters or that they would hear from the same people that already reach out through social media, phone, or email. Hearken suggested that newsrooms encourage submitters to share their questions on social media, which might encourage others to submit. They also suggested trying different messaging tactics to get audiences interested.

Overall, engagement journalism presents a promising opportunity for newsrooms. Participating organizations hoped it would help them reach people who are minimally engaged with their content. There was also hope that it would lead to deeper and more meaningful engagement. It’s worth noting that the study only examined one form of engaged journalism – there are many other strategies newsrooms can try that may lead to positive results.