In my first month with the Membership Puzzle Project, I’ve been eager to bring a human-centered design process to understanding the needs of news organizations, their staff, and their potential members. This involves going to media outlets, journalists, and news consumers around the world to learn what matters to them. In the coming months, our team will use this information to create a set of design principles for organizations interested in developing robust social contracts with their community members.
In talking to publishers, we’re hearing about the big divide that persists between editorial staff and the people they serve with news and information. Historically, newsroom staff haven’t been incentivized to care about their audience members’ interests. It’s not that they aren’t considerate or curious people—they most certainly are. That’s why many chose to go into the business of telling human stories in the first place.
And then money gets in the way
The reasons many journalists haven’t invested time in interacting with audiences are deep-seated and financial. Media organizations that solicit advertising as all or part of their revenue have built internal firewalls between commercial and editorial concerns. The goal of freeing reporters from moneymaking concerns to maintain their independence is well-intended, but it’s part of a broken system. When users are categorized as part of profit-making (as they are in all subscription and ad-driven businesses), they’re typically cut off from reporters and editors. We’re learning that even today this impacts how audiences are seen: as contributors of money, not as part of a two-way exchange of knowledge.
Everyone agrees that journalism exists to serve readers. Yet in practice managers rarely reward journalist-reader interactions as a worthwhile use of time. It might be considered a nice-to-have but it’s usually not a requirement of the job. Editors and reporters fear that listening too closely to readers—to the point that they become censors—and that interactions with readers will simply consume too much time. But listening isn't the same as taking orders. Once we develop a more nuanced understanding of the potential value of audience engagement, we can find efficient and effective ways to go about it.
Seeing audiences as patrons more than contributors is problematic. As Merel Borger writes in her paper Participatory Journalism: Rethinking Journalism in the Digital Age: “Journalism’s ideology has long provided a sense of who is ‘in’ and by consequence also of who is ‘out’: professional journalists are ‘in,’ while, amongst others, sources, the audience, and those from neighboring occupations, like public relations and communication, are ‘out.’” The result is too often an attitude of “readers/viewers/listeners are not my problem—call the marketing department” that badly needs to be modernized.
What if organizations changed this legacy?
These are a few bright examples of publishers emphasizing that communities are indeed the concern of editorial teams and not just that of their "business-side” colleagues. Sweden’s citizen-funded Blank Spot Project manages topic-specific closed Facebook groups where members can share perspectives on investigative topics that they consider underreported. Gimlet invites members to offer feedback on its pilot podcasts. The New York Times is setting up a reader hub in its newsroom, a major change for the legacy outlet (which, for full disclosure, is my former employer). In terms of making audiences more visible, the subscription-based tech outlet The Information highlights community members’ contributions and WNYC has a community advisory board which gathers listener feedback for the station. I’m encouraged by the way that these organizations and the member-driven De Correspondent (our project partner in the Netherlands) are beginning to alter the traditional incentive structure.
By expecting writers to be in touch with their communities, De Correspondent is finding community members to be generous with their time and talents. Correspondents regularly and successfully request readers’ expertise on the basis of their jobs, such as asking teachers about their classroom experiences for the benefit of education reporting. De Correspondent writers told me about instances of readers providing invaluable tips, technical proofreading, connections to sources, and help drumming up interest in their reporting in advance of publication. Earlier this year climate and energy correspondent Jelmer Mommers conducted a major investigation into Shell’s hypocritical business practices that came out of a call for sources from readers.
These aren’t one-off instances: readers are contributing with high frequency because journalists are asking for their help. This requires a level of humility that the old (still widely used) model doesn’t treat as an asset. Here, each correspondent publishes a weekly email newsletter to people who follow their topic, be it climate, education, or aging. De Correspondent writers and designers, called “correspondents,” publish information about stories they’re researching, including gaps in reporting that need filling. (Of course they use discretion in deciding what to share regarding highly sensitive ongoing investigations.) Their newsletter updates are intended to be insight-driven, with an insight being anything that helps a reader learn something they didn’t know.
Music industry correspondent Rufus Kain told me that he was initially concerned about his employer's expectation to publish newsletter updates frequently in addition to reporting, writing, and being present to his readers online and at events. But the regular cadence of reader-focused publishing helps him check his assumptions about what readers care about or already know before publishing.
“Being in touch with readers is just an important part of your work” at De Correspondent, Rufus said. It’s hard to understate how much this differentiates it from longer tenured outlets: the expectation to care isn’t something that was sprung on him and his colleagues as an added responsibility. It’s been a part of the “contract” with writers since De Correspondent was conceived, a topic we’ll explore in future posts.
This orientation towards readers isn’t without drawbacks. Staff understandably have concerns about budgeting large blocks of time each week to interact with readers by email, in person, in comments on the platform, and via social media. But the difference in this situation is that all staff share these time management concerns, not just certain departments that are designated to deal with readers.
Making reader engagement a shared endeavor
Staffers are actively trying to find systems and practices to keep audience development a shared—and sane—endeavor. There are ideas about having an "interaction advisor” offer communication management support, but the expectation remains that even the most senior staff will be in regular and direct touch with readers. (There’s a Growth Team focused on reaching new potential audiences through book publishing, speaking opportunities and events, but what elsewhere is called “audience engagement” is everyone’s responsibility at De Correspondent.) The fact that staffers understand these challenges makes them more empathetic to the strains on each other’s time, and that fosters a culture that I think makes them more empathetic toward their readers, too.
In that spirit, I’m considering other questions that we as news professionals can ask from these more open models. De Correspondent and others don’t offer turnkey solutions, but they encourage us to broaden our thinking about our organizational structures and approaches to audiences. As the Membership Puzzle Project conducts research with organizations that have or are considering membership models, I wonder:
How might we as news organizations be both writer-centric and reader-focused?
This is a question that requires a major rethink of the ways we conduct business in media. De Correspondent represents both of these aims simultaneously and to an extreme, but it behooves the rest of us to pay attention. Correspondents, not editors, largely decide and drive the agenda for their own work. Correspondents enjoy the role of autonomous conversation leaders and, in exchange, are expected to make many parts of their work public.
For this to work more broadly, media organizations would need to be less geared toward being papers of record. Giving writers and designers more decision-making around topics of their choosing forfeits exhaustive recording of all the news of the day, but it provides deeper, more strategic analysis for readers. It is also worth noting that De Correspondent frequently looks beyond journalism talent and employs researchers and anthropologists; the cross-disciplinary approaches this brings to problem solving are striking.
Members aid in and influence reporting, and the organization tracks only limited personal data on its members. Members contribute €60 annually with the option to donate more and can learn how their contributions are being spent annually. The default position is one of collaboration and transparency. Correspondents have a lot of autonomy—but they have to listen.
How might we take an attitude of gratitude? I regularly heard staff compliment staff and readers for their work, and when I asked I was assured that this wasn’t just for my benefit as a visitor. Founders talk regularly about their subordinates’ strengths, in part because they don’t see saying positive things as degrading their own importance. (Not thinking of them as subordinates may help, too; lead developer Lode Claassen told me he acts as a “co-working frontman,” which has echoes of Michael Keaton’s editor character in “Spotlight” describing his role on his investigative reporting team as “player coach.”) There is a cultural norm around giving credit here, including co-authoring stories with research assistants, that is rare across many industries.
How might we give a human face to the work? Anonymous, institutional tone of voice has no place at De Correspondent. By having writers be highly involved in moderating comments on their stories to making illustrated staff likenesses prominent on platform and social media, The Economist this is not. Editor in Chief Rob Wijnberg said that “People don’t connect to merely facts; they connect to storytellers and their stories.”
Acknowledging staffers’ humanity also means understanding the ways we all suffer from information overload, which applies to team communication too. The development team created a strict practice of working on a single core project every weekday until 2 PM, then reserving team standup and cross-team meetings for the afternoon. Other teams are trying the practice, and those who have adopted it say it allows them to suffer less context switching and more ability to focus. Here too, the message is that staffers are in charge of how they spend their time and how they choose to respond.
As Cofounder and CTO Sebastian Kersten tells his teams: “Everything can be changed if you have a better solution.”