3 takeaways from News21’s engagement plan

By Dominick DiFurio

The Carnegie-Knight News21 Initiative, based at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, was the perfect opportunity for all of us at the PIN Bureau to test out new methods of engaging audiences. News21 is a fellowship program for top journalism students or recent graduates from across the country. This summer, reporting fellows from 16 universities travelled to more than 28 states for their in-depth Gun Wars investigation on gun rights and regulations in the United States.

Thanks to a Challenge Fund grant, the PIN Bureau laid out a 13-point plan to facilitate public engagement throughout the reporting process using a variety of PIN queries, social-media campaigns, a six-week online discussion, a virtual roundtable with News21 staff and a dynamic pre-launch blog.

Here are our top 3 takeaways from the project:

      1. A strong pre-launch digital presence helps build interest and engagement in advance of an investigative project.

        The first piece of the News21 engagement plan was to develop a promotional microsite titled the Gun Wars Blog, which our engagement editor was able to imagetackle early on. All site referrals and content links were built to forward to the full Gun Wars site once the project was published. In essence, any traffic we were pushing toward the microsite leading up to the project launch date was an investment in traffic toward the actual report. The microsite hosted a lot of the experimental content we played with over the course of the project. It allowed us to begin making our audience aware of the project and communicate with the public before our investigation was even ready to be published.

      2. People on opposing sides of a divisive issue can have rich, good-natured conversation in a safe, digital environment. Engagement editor David Ryan led a closed online forum with 34 people who volunteered to discuss gun issues in-depth over several weeks. We used a discussion platform called Social Engine to build our forum, and we called our conversation “News21 Connect.” We selected people to invite to the conversation to ensure diversity of views and backgrounds. We posed a new topic every week and asked members of the forum to weigh in. The PIN Bureau asked members things like: To what extent do you talk about guns with acquaintances, friends, coworkers, family members and other community members around you? We saw very encouraging engagement between people of opposing views, and we received feedback that our online conversations with audience members were creating new conversations in their daily lives. We’ll have more to report about the impact of the conversation after a post-engagement survey later this year.
      3. Behind-the-scenes videos can spark engagement. Video queries don’t necessarily do the same. Behind-the-scenes videos and articles drew attention on our social media accounts throughout the early stages of News21 reporting. We saw the most interaction with posts that profiled the fellows in the newsroom. On the other hand, we tested video as a new medium for encouraging engagement through PIN queries and social media. We recorded a video version of a typical PIN query, hosted on Youtube and embedded in the query page. We didn’t see a higher click-through rate or more overall responses to the query than we did for queries without video. The video may have been too long (53 seconds), or it could have been one too many elements for the post. We’d like to experiment further to better understand how to use video most effectively.

Stay tuned for a complete look at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication’s study on the impact of journalistic engagement next year.

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