The Engaging News Project: How academia can offer engagement solutions for newsrooms

By Kylie Gumpert

Todd Olmstead of The Wall Street Journal, Barry Osborne of The Denver Post and Allison Rockey of Vox.com talk about engagement solutions at a News Engagement Workshop hosted by the Engaging News Project last October at Princeton University. The Project uses these workshops to figure out what newsrooms are missing so that they can test and implement new ideas. (Photo by The Engaging News Project)

As journalists, we’re often wondering what the future of this business might look like, how to better our coverage now and what our audiences are really looking for. Are we hitting the mark? Are we sure we know what the mark is?

While there are some major disagreements on that last part, there’s a project brewing in Austin, Texas that is trying to help newsrooms answer those questions.

The Engaging News Project, an academia-meets-news venture, is proving that educational institutions can be a vital asset to newsrooms by conducting research and developing new tools.

“The most important thing we have seen is that news organizations are interested in academic research and that scholars can play an important role in envisioning the future of news,” Natalie (who goes by Talia) Stroud, director of the project said in an email.

The grant-funded project is part of the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life of the Moody College of Communication at the University of Texas at Austin. A team of graduate and undergraduate students as well as faculty conducts research studies to determine best practices for journalists who want to better connect with their consumers.

They present their findings and any created tools on the Engaging News Project site for newsrooms to use as they please, free of charge.

From collecting data that measures how well an audience comprehends the information in stories to experimenting with reporter interaction in comment sections, the Engaging News Project provides information newsrooms can use to improve their coverage.

“We should be reaching for something deeper than measuring engagement,” said Tom Negrete, the director of innovation and news operations at The Sacramento Bee, who has utilized the project’s research. ”Did the content actually help them understand the topic better? How do we measure that?”

The Engaging News Project has one answer for that: its quiz builder tool, which has been utilized by KUT Austin as well as The Sacramento Bee. Available in a multiple choice or slider format, the project’s data showed that by testing the audience’s comprehension of a story, the quizzes not only increased understanding but also helped highlight areas in coverage where the audience was confused and increased time spent on a page.

For its journalist involvement in comment sections project, the team worked with a local television station and performed a study that found when reporters personally respond to commenters, incivility in the conversation is reduced by 15 percent and reasoning for the argument is increased by 9 percent.

“It feels like a free space, but when someone is there modeling and rewarding proper section etiquette it changes that mindset,” Stroud said. “It’s not a cure-all, but I think it helps.”

Negrete agrees and said the Bee has done a lot of research on its own comment section, finding that top commenters tend to be less educated than their other readers, and that their most educated readers see the space as an unregulated free-for-all.

He met Stroud and her team during one of their News Engagement Workshops, where they invite digital news leaders from across the country to talk about engagement.

He’s hoping to implement the project’s “Respect” button in the next couple of weeks  —which was adopted by The Texas Tribune’s opinion-only site, TribTalk.

“Target and Macy’s, they go much deeper to understand their customers because they have to, but the print model has not done that,” Negrete said. “For the health of the industry, we need to know the value of our customers.”

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