Local protest

How to measure the value of news content: How about based on reader action?

By Steve Outing

“What is the best way to measure meaningful content?” … That’s the prompt for June’s Carnival of Journalism, a monthly blog-fest where journalism experts and aficionados answer a common question, and the result is a brain dump usually representing lots of diversity and wisdom.

Carnival proprietor David Cohn has a rule for participants: “No apologies.” That’s good, so I won’t need to apologize for refining the question (which comes from communication professor Jonathan Groves) to suit my whims.

Let’s revise and define the question a bit. “Content” is a broad term, so for this exercise I’ll narrow it to “significant news that makes you angry.” Hard-hitting journalism is what I’m describing:

  • The investigative story about the city mayor’s office paying female employees less than men doing identical work. …
  • The school lunchroom that served expired food to students, until several got food poisoning from it. …
  • The congressional candidate who is leading in the polls despite his little-known past as a drug dealer who served several years in prison. …
  • The severity of the obscene-graffiti problem at the public library. …

Supporting readers in taking action, rather than just making them aware of problems (and left helpless to do anything), will deepen reader engagement with a news organization.

We read and watch news stories like that constantly. And with very few exceptions, journalism convention does not support urging readers or viewers to take action to help right a wrong, or help take down a corrupt politician, or get a school principal removed for dereliction of duty, and so on.

We read the story, watch the video news report. We get angry. We want to do something. … Usually, the best we can do via the news outlet is post a comment on its website. We can vent. Maybe we complain about it to our Facebook network.

In conventional journalism, it’s still the norm to leave you in that angry, I-want-to-do-something state. The news organization is just telling you about the bad thing. It’s not its job to tell you how to help make this awful thing they’ve just made you aware of get fixed.

Audience engagement can mean audience action

Journalism in the digital and social-media age is changing, of course. For the makes-you-angry type of journalism that I’m focusing on, I think that’s an outdated model. I’ll contend here that for these types of stories, news organizations should empower their audience to take action, by including how as part of the news report.

So, to answer the Carnival question (my modified version of it), for hard-hitting works of journalism that expose corruption, wrongdoing, unethical actions by public officials or businesses, that sort of thing, I’d like to see news organizations measure the value of that journalism not just by how many people read the story, or how many comments get posted to it, but how much it spurs action by readers and viewers to try to solve the problem that its reporter has uncovered.

How, exactly, do we do that? Well, carefully, for one thing. Editors don’t want to incite a riot in front of the mayor’s office. But they can inform readers how to find events or groups that are working to attack the issue:

  • Is there a petition drive already going to get the city to pay women employees equal to men? Provide a link to make it easy to sign online.
  • Is there a women’s organization currently lobbying to fix the gender pay-gap issue? Point readers to its website, specifically to its page on the mayor’s-office controversy, if there is one; and/or to its fund-raising page to support lobbying efforts on the issue.
  • Is there a parents’ protest scheduled at the school serving expired food aimed at ousting the principal? Give readers the details of when and where, and link to a sign-up form to carpool, or get together to make protest signs, if those exist.
  • If the issue is something like state buildings’ lawns and gardens being watered during the middle of hot summer days, violating local drought watering restrictions, who are the best officials for angry readers to notify? Give them a list, with phone numbers, e-mail addresses, and/or citizen-input forms online.

The ideal, in my view, is that for appropriate stories (like those we’re discussing) there’s a section at the end — “Take action” — with ways for readers who are angry about what a news story has uncovered, to do something (more than just rant in Comments). And don’t just do the old thing of listing the time and place of the protest, for example; provide actions that readers can take, whether it’s to sign a petition or commit to volunteer work. … For the story on local impacts seen from climate change, for instance, find ways for concerned readers to help out at a local level — say, commit to cycling or walking to work for one day a week.

And for all this reader “action” that’s partly replacing mostly useless griping in the Comments section, track how many people sign the petitions, or register to attend a protest-organizing meeting, or sign up as volunteers to paint over the library’s graffiti.

Investigative reporting has long been about revealing wrongs so that those who have the power can right them. (E.g., the nursing home with an abnormally high mortality rate and health department warnings gets noticed by elected officials, who pressure the regulatory agency to cancel its operating permit until derelict administrators have been replaced.) But today, everyone has power to effect change, whether by some of the methods described above or by launching a social-media campaign that forces a solution.

A related question offered by Professor Jonathan Groves for this Carnival of Journalism was: “What is the best way to evaluate content that fosters deep engagement with the audience?” … Supporting readers in taking action, rather than just making them aware of problems (and left helpless to do anything), will deepen reader engagement with a news organization; I have no doubt about that.

About taking sides

Here’s a last point, to address the criticism that I expect many journalists have of this notion. Yes, some issues that journalists cover are controversial, and promoting taking action by your audience can be seen as taking sides. Just use common sense and leave out the “Take Action” section on stories where it’s not appropriate or might do damage to your news brand for being perceived as promoting one point of view on a highly charged controversy.

Personally, I think one of conventional journalism’s big problems in the digital age is the continued resistance to “taking sides” in a debate. More journalism that causes things to get done, to get fixed, is for the better. Take our hypothetical library graffiti problem: If a local news organization promotes cleaning it up and gets people there with paint brushes, who’s going to argue with that?

But then there’s an issue like fracking, which has people fired up on both sides of the argument about environmental damage versus jobs and having enough energy to drive the economy. That’s a case where a news organization might take a stand, and editorialize for a county ban on the oil-industry practice. In that scenario, the call to action can and probably should be restricted to an opinion piece.

Usually in this blog I write about the future of journalism. I’m not willing to make a prediction here, but I hope that we will see more and more news organizations get out of the sharing-information-only business and also use their power to empower readers to fix things and right wrongs, as well as keep the public well informed.

Top photo by Gavin Stewart, via Flickr; used under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial license.

Author: Steve Outing Steve Outing is a Boulder, Colorado-based media futurist, digital-news innovator, consultant, journalist, and educator. ... Need assistance with media-company future strategy? Get in touch with Steve!