The Convergence Newsletter
The Convergence Newsletter

From Newsplex at the University of South Carolina

Vol. XI No. 2 (February 2014)

Engaging a Digital Audience

By Chris Winker

Like all for-profit businesses, news organizations are selling a product. But perhaps where they failed the most, at least comparatively speaking, was by having a massive disconnection with their customers. For years, media were able to ride the monopoly of the product, largely ignoring the needs and wants of their customers.

Massive shifts in the news industry have been well documented, but the importance of re establishing community relationships has largely flown under the radar. In this issue, Jake Batsell talks about "engaged journalism" in news organizations. He sees five specific practices, both short- and long-term that can benefit such organizations and says that, in the end, engaged journalism is an absolute must in today's digital age.

Respond to Batsell's thoughts at The Convergence Newsletter blog and at the newsletter's Facebook or Google+ pages. View the full archive of newsletters at


Quick Glance Calendar (Details)

March 20-22: AEJMC Southeast Colloquium, Gainesville, Fla.

April 1: Call for papers, AEJMC annual conference

April 4-5: Journalism Interactive, College Park, Md.

April 4-5: International Symposium on Online Journalism, Austin, Texas.

April 24-26: The International Conference on Communication, Media, Technology and Design, Istanbul

Aug. 6-9: AEJMC annual conference, Montreal

Sept. 23-24: International Conference on Journalism and Mass Communications, Singapore


Featured Article

Practicing 'Engaged Journalism': Five Areas Where Putting the Audience First Can Reap Rewards
By Jake Batsell
Southern Methodist University

How are today's journalists finding new ways to engage the audience they once took for granted? This question is at the heart of my forthcoming book, Engaged Journalism: Connecting With Digitally Empowered News Audiences (Columbia University Press, expected publication in late 2014).

Engaged Journalism examines the changing relationship between news providers and the audiences they serve. My interest in the topic stems from my own journey as a newspaper reporter who sometimes considered readers to be a nuisance but, over time, learned to embrace the journalistic power of the two-way conversation. The book – aimed at academics, professionals, students, and anyone interested in the future of news – highlights examples of innovative news organizations that have discovered meaningful ways to connect with (and, yes, monetize) their readers, viewers and online users. The goal is to demonstrate that while newsrooms may be losing agenda-setting power, they still can thrive by engaging their communities through a combination of online technology and personal interaction. I define engaged journalism as "the degree to which a news organization actively considers and interacts with its audience in furtherance of its journalistic and financial mission."

At a time when subscriptions and other forms of direct-reader revenue are starting to show more promise in the search for sustainable business models [1], the puzzle of how to instill loyalty through audience engagement is more important than ever. The book aims to present a modern set of best practices (and false starts and wrong turns) to help provide a road map for professionals, academics and educators, based on more than 100 interviews at nearly two dozen news organizations in the United States and United Kingdom between May 2012 and July 2013.

I found that news organizations' engagement strategies were driven by five guiding principles:

  • Connect with your audience in person. Face-to-face events that deliver a memorable, worthwhile experience can deepen loyalty to a news organization while also generating cash. The latest breed of news events go beyond traditional notions of "civic journalism" that once prompted media outlets to convene their audiences out of some sort of solemn obligation to serve as a town square [2]. This new, strategic approach to in-person engagement regards live events not merely as a civic obligation, but as an entrepreneurial opportunity [3].

    News organizations are in a unique position to convene the types of educated, influential audiences that corporate sponsors want to reach. By hosting face-to-face events that combine networking with education, entertainment or both, news outlets can build a sense of community while boosting the bottom line.

  • Interact with your audience at every step. Perhaps the most fundamental element of engaged journalism is seizing the most effective digital tools of the day to foster an ongoing conversation with the audience. By now, it has become second nature for most newspapers, TV stations and news websites to engage their audience through social media, real-time coverage, crowdsourcing, beat blogging, user-generated content and comment threads. Still, there is a clear difference between half-hearted, robotic use of these forums and well-thought-out strategies that forge an authentic relationship with the audience, solidifying a news outlet as a trusted hub for information.

  • Serve the "passionate vertical." Topical niches and geographic areas offer news organizations separate but related opportunities to reach motivated audiences who are willing to pay for specialized and localized content. The most successful ventures in niche and hyperlocal journalism manage to fill a previously unmet information need for the communities they serve. In some cases, that means providing ultra-detailed coverage of specialized topics from politics to high school football. In other instances, it means providing residents of communities like West Seattle or New Haven a degree of localized coverage they can't get from traditional news outlets.

    The growing adoption of smartphones, tablets and other mobile devices, coupled with the Web's "long tail" [4], presents an unprecedented opportunity to engage audiences personally invested in a particular niche or neighborhood. But mustering a profitable business from these smaller-scale audiences can be challenging.

  • Empower audiences to satisfy their own curiosity. Data-driven news applications allow users to easily search for the information that matters most to them. In a similar vein, newsy quizzes, games and contests challenge participants by tapping into their curiosity and competitive instincts. At their best, both styles of participatory journalism provide interactive news platforms that transcend the one-way dispatches of years past. And digital audiences, who vote with their clicks, often prefer interactive apps to traditional stories [5].

  • Measure effectiveness and capture value. Today's news organizations have myriad digital metrics at their disposal to track the effectiveness of their engagement initiatives – and to ascertain whether those efforts are helping the bottom line. Retweets and Facebook "likes" are nice to have, but the most conclusive metric for any engagement strategy is whether it helps a news organization stay in business.

Whether a media outlet is corporate-owned or nonprofit, paywalled or ad-supported, its financial success increasingly depends on attracting and monetizing a loyal base of engaged news consumers. The stakes are immensely high for society, because in an era when digital news consumers have infinite choices for information, the Fourth Estate can fulfill its watchdog role only if it remains relevant and commercially viable. For the news business, engaged journalism is a matter of survival.

Jake Batsell, a 2013-14 visiting research fellow at The Texas Tribune, is an assistant professor in the Division of Journalism at Southern Methodist University. He previously worked as a staff writer for The Dallas Morning News and Seattle Times. He can be reached at

[1] Doctor, K. (2012). The newsonomics of majority reader revenue. Nieman Journalism Lab, May 31. Retrieved June 5, 2013, from:; Coscarelli, J. 2012. The New York Times is now supported by readers, not advertising. New York Magazine, July 26. Retrieved June 5, 2013, from: (Return)

[2] Perry, D. (2005). Civic journalism: News as transactional pedagogy. Education and Culture 20.2:25-41; Denton, F., and Thorson, E. (1995). Civic journalism: Does it work? Pew Center for Civic Journalism. Retrieved June 7, 2013, from: (Return)

[3] Batsell, J. (2013). The 'original platform': How newsrooms build digital loyalty and generate revenue through face-to-face engagement. #ISOJ: The Official Research Journal of the International Symposium on Online Journalism 3.2:274-289. (Return)

[4] Anderson, C. (2006). The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More. New York: Hyperion. (Return)

[5] Meyer, R. (2014). The New York Times' most popular story of 2013 was not an article. The Atlantic, January 17. Retrieved January 18, 2014, from: most-popular-story-of-2013-was-not-an-article/283167/. (Return)


Conferences, Training, and Calls for Papers (Return to top)

AEJMC Southeast Colloquium
University of Florida, Gainesville, Fla.
March 20-22


Journalism Interactive
University of Maryland, College Park, Md.
April 4-5


International Symposium on Online Journalism
University of Texas at Austin
April 4-5


The International Conference on Communication, Media, Technology and Design
April 24-26


AEJMC Annual Conference
Aug. 6-9
Call for papers: April 1


3rd Annual International Conference on Journalism and Mass Communication
Sept. 22-23
Deadline to submit papers: March 21


Job Listings

Central Connecticut State: associate professor
To begin the application process, go to and electronically submit a letter of interest, C.V., three current references and work samples.


Publisher and Editorial Staff

The Convergence Newsletter is free and published by The College of Mass Communications and Information Studies at the University of South Carolina.

Executive Editor: Doug Fisher

Editor: Chris Winkler

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