“For years newspapers and media organisations spoke at people and not to people,” said New York Times reporter Lynsey Chutel speaking at the recent Jamfest 2023 session on audience engagement between newsrooms and their audiences. 

The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism said in its annual Digital News Report that trust in news continues to fall with people young people increasingly turning to TikTok to consume news, whilst other respondents said they no longer know how to differentiate between real news and fake news.  

Against this backdrop, the panel facilitated by Jamlab programme coordinator Lindokuhle Nzuza in conversation with Health-E News managing editor Bibi-Aisha Wadvalla, journalism support consultant Adam Oxford as well as Chutel, explored the ways in which newsrooms can better engage with their audiences.  

Chutel said she envied the relationships that community newspapers had been able to forge with their readers where “people know their names and journalists know their community”. She said the news media needs to start looking at tools of engagement where people can talk back to the media and be held accountable and responsible. 

Health E-News, which has been around since 1999, aims to reach the underserved portion of the South African population in rural areas whose stories are not covered by the mainstream media. 

 “Something that we’ve recently started is going out and engaging with communities directly and what we’re hearing is they’re tired of journalists parachuting in, speaking to them to cover an issue and then leaving,” said Wadvalla. 

She said their role as a publication was initiating, developing and maintaining those relationships with communities to make sure that the stories that they tell are sparked by the community itself. This was important because often journalists have an idea that they go in wanting to report and only once they speak to communities do they discover something completely different. 

“Engagement journalism is at the core of what we do because as Health E-News we sit at the intersection of media, public health and social justice so the way we frame and select stories is very important.” 

To improve their trust and credibility with their audience, Health E-News has employed a strategy of using citizen journalists who are rooted in these communities and are able to produce stories that journalists who would otherwise be ‘parachuted in’, wouldn’t have the time or resources to produce. 

For Oxford, it is important to solidify yourself as a news brand so that consumers know what they are coming to you for. He said his work with media organisations was in teaching them how to read the data coming from their news sites so that they can run those news sites.  

He added that it was key to look beyond the headlines, visitors and time on pages to see how people were navigating websites so that it is a quality experience that keeps people coming back.  

“A common problem I see in almost every news organisation I work with is that they boast about the thousands of readers that visit their websites, but when I drill into those numbers, I see that many of those readers come in, read one story and leave. They come from Google and then bounce off because your website is not sticky, you’re not building a community.” 

Oxford stressed that people do not read websites like they used to read newspapers, from front to back so news organisations need to find out what keeps people coming back and keeps people engaged. His advice is to pay attention to specific data and use it to influence your product design and editorial strategy so that you get to a point where people love what you do to the extent that your news website is the one that they want to open first thing every morning. 

How to build a community 

Oxford offered some tips on what publications should consider when building a community. He said to apply the concept of product thinking to understand what readers want from news organisations.   

News media organisations need to learn how to market themselves. Something that many organisations are still shy to do. The Daily Maverick is a publication that has done this well.  

Chutel said at The New York Times diversity and transparency were key in regaining people’s trust. “Diversity matters when it comes to audience engagement. Who is telling the story matters… You don’t have to be from a certain community to report on that community but when you have transparency about who’s doing the reporting and how the reporting is happening, I think that’s important”. 

She also highlighted how her organisation had been successful at product thinking because it viewed its reader as “a whole person”. They offer podcasts, a widely successful cooking app, crosswords, and other items that take into consideration that readers want much more than news coverage. “The New York Times has figured out that there are different ways to engage people in terms of their lives.”  

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