Why European journalists struggle to engage with their communities

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Photo by: David Marcu

Two months ago, we set ourselves the task of finding out what journalists across Europe needed to become more trusted, more open and more resilient. That’s why over the summer we conducted 25 interviews, visited 11 news organisations and carried out an online survey altogether covering more than 15 countries.

While each country had their own context and specific challenges, some themes were remarkably consistent. Here are the main lessons we learned and what they mean for our Engaged Journalism Accelerator programme.

1. I don’t know where to start when it comes to resilience or sustainability

Revenue was the overwhelming theme of most of our conversations. Marketing messaging, pricing strategies, membership growth, and subscriber benefits were all brought up as things the news organisations would like to learn about.

We need to get people in newsrooms to forget for a second about journalism as a public good and think of it like selling tires.” - expert interviewee

We also found out that resilience isn’t all about revenue; it comes in all shapes and sizes. For some smaller organisations, it’s about personal sustainability, like being able to go to the doctor’s without operations being put on hold. For others, it was about reducing their reliance on grant funding and growing other streams in case the philanthropic market changed.

How the Accelerator will address this: Right now, there isn’t an organisation in Europe that can help publications on their way to resilience in the same way that there is in the US. We want to be the go-to place for questions of resilience and sustainability.

We will weave it into everything we do. Our grants will emphasise it, our events will have a track dedicated to it and our resources will major on it. We’ve already published the Engaged Journalism in Europe Database but we’ll concentrate on producing even more practical and approachable guides designed to help solve specific sustainability challenges.

2. I need hard evidence to prove that engaged journalism works

There is little data from Europe about whether the organisations that focus on community engagement are more sustainable in the long run. Academic research exists about the links between user participation and financial resilience, but it’s not easy to find or understand.

At the same time, publishers lack time and skills to look at their own metrics beyond page views and have little experience with linking user behaviour to business metrics, whether it’s onboarding volunteers, soliciting donations or driving subscriptions.

How the Accelerator will address this: It’s clear we need to help build up a body of data and insights that answer these questions and prove the usefulness of engaged journalism.

Some of that will come from our grantees’ learnings but we also plan to partner with academic institutions and work closely with researchers doing this work.

Through our events and workshops, we will be facilitating a discussion between academics and researchers, and the practitioners of engaged journalism.

3. I want to experiment but others in my news organisation don’t

Stagnating newsroom culture was a prevalent issue mentioned across interviews. Innovation (and by that we don’t necessarily mean technological) is often reactive to a market change (e.g. Facebook’s algorithm) rather than done proactively.

“If the argument (against experimenting) was ‘will this make money?’ that would be easier to answer. But it’s more about being reluctant to try something new” — interviewee, Sweden

Interestingly, several innovative publications we found are built by people from other fields like PR, communications, video, activism. Their backgrounds have given them different perspectives on what journalism should look like.

Meanwhile, in some of the established news organisations, the approach to innovation may look very different. One Norwegian senior editor remarked that most organisations “don’t have a lot of practice in doing strategic planning before they launch a new project, format or initiative” nor do they have “a culture for evaluating what went wrong so we don’t always learn from it.” Failure is still something that news organisations of all sizes grapple with and struggle to learn from.

This reluctance towards innovation also affects hiring and skills development. Interviewees across countries said hiring practices hadn’t changed in years — they looked for people with the same backgrounds, experience and a focus on writing, rather than oral communication.

Attempts to combat the stagnating newsroom culture are received with mixed feelings: Some organisations have created or partnered on incubators that specialise in developing these frameworks, but they sat a long way from the editorial floors. This approach, some interviewees felt, even held back any adoption of new, more participatory forms of journalism.

How the Accelerator will address this: Newsroom culture is an undiscussed problem that threatens new ways of doing things in all news organisations. Resources that we intend to produce will be one of two types: either case studies (inspiration-driven) or guides (need-driven).

The former will highlight some of the interesting examples (Huffington Post’s pop-up newsroom and Inside Story’s co-creation workshop to name just a few) and measure them with regards to the journalists, rather than the community, to help quantify the kind of cultural shift that we believe news organisations need to go through.

The latter will include a framework to help measure the effect these resources have. We will also invite our grantees to write about their core activities to show that failure is common and something to learn from.

4. I want to learn but the resources don’t feel like they’re written for me

News organisations don’t have the time they would like to access existing resources out in the wild. Over half of our survey respondents said this was an issue. Case studies and practical tips were most sought after in our survey, even above funding opportunities, suggesting a desire for insider, how-to information from and for Europe.

One interviewee remarked that she’d want a newsletter with ‘two good stories rather than fourteen average ones’.

How the Accelerator will address this:
People want to hear from De Correspondent, Zetland, The Bristol Cable plus The Information, ProPublica and Spaceship Media in the US. Our job is to bring their learnings to our network in a way that makes you think ‘yeah, I’ll give this a go’.

It’s our job to curate the best writing around and deliver it to you in a simple, easy to read format. Our weekly newsletter will be key to that and look in depth at organisations doing something innovative or interesting to engage their community in a new way.

It starts at the end of September — sign up here to make sure you get the first edition. We also intend for you, our network, to have a say in the guides and case studies we produce, so stay tuned!

5. I want to find out how other people across Europe tackle the problems I’m facing

A number of interviewees remarked on the importance of meeting people face-to-face and we can only agree: our network relies on the bonds developed through our events and mentoring.

One survey response summed it up in a nutshell: “We have a good knowledge of how similar organisations (in our country) operate and so would be really interested in more cross-European skills and knowledge exchange to help us think innovatively about new models for financially sustainable engaged journalism.”

In terms of the best format for this, it was very clear that small workshops, rather than a traditional conference, were preferred. Several interviewees were inspired by the News Impact Academy, with its practical format, group work and expert facilitation.

“Mentoring sessions provide something tangible and actionable’ — expert interviewee, German

How the Accelerator will address this: Our events will be small, practical and have a clear outcome. They will be organised in such a way that people participating will be workshop leaders and session facilitators themselves, and able to share knowledge as well as get it from other attendees. Funding will be available to organisations that don’t have the budget to attend. We’ll be trialling this approach in Cardiff in October as part of the EJC’s News Impact Summit.

Join the Engaged Journalism Accelerator’s network to be the first to hear about grants, new resources, upcoming events and mentorship opportunities. This post was first published on the European Journalism Centre's Medium page.

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