Knowledge Bridge

Global Intelligence for the Digital Transition

Know Your Audience, Build a Clique

Many great actors failed to adapt from silent movies to the “talkies” and disappeared from the big screen. By the same token, many great journalists risk fading away because they are not adjusting from the era of virtually silent audiences to the virtual era of talking audiences.

This explains why in many countries, digital journalistic enterprises launched when social media was already mature rapidly run ahead of legacy newspapers, even those that made big cash injections into their digital operations. Of course, successful digital media must produce good journalism, but their true secret is creating a conversation around it.  They are open to their public and easily let them know who they are. In one example in Eastern Europe, despite the traditional formality of many East European media, a new digital outlet had no problem sending a video to their audience of the editor sitting in her kitchen apologising saying she was sorry for a boring newsletter they had sent. In Latin America, new digital outlets have also successfully broken with the formal, ceremonial tone so characteristic of serious media there. Reporters tell the stories behind their best stories; introduce themselves with slang, as if to friends; constantly correct their mistakes; and when they have a conflict of interest about an issue, are candid about it. They let their public know that the media is only human.

These journalists offer their audiences a new, more transparent, and freer horizontal culture. However, sometimes, even those passionate journalists forget it takes two to tango. They want to tell their readers a lot about themselves, but do not care to listen.  Recently I saw journalists from Central America and the Middle East marvel at how little they knew about their readers after taking an intensive “read your analytics” course.  They said that knowing their Google stats and monitoring their following on social media makes a big difference to knowing how their stories are received.

But they, along with other media, including the largest US newspapers, have been realizing that tracking graphs and trends is not the same as talking with your public. (“We can count the world’s best-informed and most influential people among our readers”, said the New York Time’s 2014 innovation report. “Yet we haven’t cracked the code for engaging with them in a way that makes our report richer”).

Media in digital era know now they should invite readers to discover the world with them: open doors so that their audience can check the public discourse with them (like many of the 100+ fact-checking outlets around the globe are doing today); know the experts among their readers so that they bring insight into their news; call upon those with a generous heart to help them go through the millions of documents they just got from a source and build a database; ask the furious and the bullies, who write insults under their articles, where does their anger come from and, listen; open a space to let readers decide which reportage they should do; invite first-hand witnesses to document a problem they are investigating… the list of how much they can enrich their journalism is endless.

For those journalists with blinders who believe that engagement with audience is the business of marketers, Monica Guzman in her great guide about audience engagement  published this year with the American Press Institute proves them wrong. It is not about delivering a product, it is about making sure your readers know you respect and value them, she says, “showing them that together, they have important things to teach each other.”

Around the world independent journalism becomes stronger on the shoulders of the communities they serve.  Eldiario in Spain and Mada Masr in Egypt define themselves as a culture, a way of being, a clique, an idea of the society they want to be. And they build this dream together with a community that feels invited to be part of their world, well-treated, partaker, equal, like in any really good conversation. The “talky” public is here to stay and those journalists who fail to see their luck in this new era are likely to fade away.

This story originally appeared in of the Open Society Foundation’s Program on Independent Journalism and is reprinted with permission.

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Article by María Teresa Ronderos

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