Episode 20: Why audience engagement helps journalists find job satisfaction, with Community Impact Newspaper

The Center of Attention · 20 Why audience engagement helps journalists find job satisfaction, with Community Impact Newspaper

Earlier in his career, Matt Dulin, an editor at the Community Impact Newspaper in Houston, experienced a shift in the nature of his work. “Journalism jobs have inadvertently been redesigned, just through necessity,” Matt said. When conducting research at the Missouri School of Journalism, he was inspired to study one of the factors related to that change: audience engagement.

Matt set out to learn whether journalists who practiced audience engagement—defined as using analytics or social media as part of your job—had higher job satisfaction. Turns out, audience engagement helped people find meaning in their work.

Matt joins us to discuss what he learned from his research, why there’s a link between feedback and job satisfaction, and how audience engagement creates a positive feedback loop. Sachin and Andrew talk about how they define audience engagement and why feedback from data is so important. Plus, they go +1/-1 on common (and maybe thankfully not-so-common) jargon words.

Listen to the full episode above and read on for the audio transcript. Subscribe to The Center of Attention on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, or Stitcher.

Show notes:


Megan: Sachin, Andrew, what was the last post you liked on social media?

Andrew: The last post I liked on social media was this crazy tweet from a friend of mine in Charlottesville. I’m based in Charlottesville, the unfortunate location of the August 12th events, and a good friend of mine, named Rory, he posted a 55-post tweet storm on the eve of the midterm elections, detailing everything about this triangle of unfortunate contacts between Corey Stewart, who is running for Senate here in Virginia, and Jason Kessler, who’s one of the organizers of this thing. I’d say Rory went into more depth than even a lot of journalists have on this issue, so it’s a pretty cool example of a lot of things, like online journalism, tweet storms that are crazy with 55 posts, and, I guess, the craziness of the modern era of online communities flowing over, even sometimes loaded by hate, into the real world.

Sachin: Wow. But also, like, 50 tweets…should that be a blog post?

Andrew: That should probably be a blog post. I don’t think Rory has a blog. I should probably set him up with one.

Sachin: Mine’s a little bit less…definitely less serious, maybe more embarrassing. Mine is a tweet that I liked from this Twitter account, @WWESubway, where it mashes up wrestling gifs with Subway experiences. For example, the one that I liked said, “When the Subway sandwich artist asks you if you’d like double meat and cheese,” and then has a gif of, I think The Undertaker, nodding voraciously, in this case, to get the Subway sandwich.

Megan: Okay, so two different—

Sachin: —very different.

Andrew: I’d say that’s pretty different, yeah.

Megan: (01:56) Two different things, but you engaged with it. Both of these pieces of social content spoke to you in some way, whether it was on a serious level, on a level of entertainment, something that was funny, but it resonated with you on an emotional level, and it meant something.

What I really want to talk about today is how the reverse can be true, too. When content creators and journalists put out their work into the world, they also get some sort of resonance when people interact with it. I talked to Matt Dulin, who’s an editor with the Community Impact in Houston, Texas. Matt has conducted research at the Missouri School of Journalism about audience engagement because he wanted to know if journalists find more satisfaction and meaning in their work when they practice audience engagement. Turns out, they do.

Welcome to The Center of Attention, the podcast exploring how digital behavior relates to the attention economy at large. I’m Megan Radogna, the show’s producer, and I’m here with Parse.ly’s co-founders and the show’s co-hosts, Sachin Kamdar and Andrew Montalenti. Hi, Sachin.

Sachin: Hey.

Megan: Hi, Andrew.

Andrew: Hey, there, Megan.

Megan: (03:13) So, Sachin, how would you define audience engagement in just a few words?

Sachin: (03:18) For me, audience engagement is a way that an individual is sharing feedback with you, whether that’s anecdotally or quantitatively.

Megan: (03:28) And, Andrew, how about you? How would you define audience engagement?

Andrew: (03:31) I’d define audience engagement as getting some sort of response out of people who are interacting with something that you’ve put out there, so I think of audience engagement less in terms of, do people actually do some sort of trackable action, like a click or a like or a share or whatever, and more in terms of, did you actually change that person, or were you just another piece of content in the stream and in the noise?

Megan: (04:01) Both a tricky thing and a really cool thing about audience engagement, is that there isn’t exactly one set definition. What I think that we can agree on is that it’s important to define it, especially within individual organizations of people who are creating content. The benefits of defining audience engagement, tying it to your goals, and measuring are numerous, and we can go into a lot of them in this episode.

So for his study in particular, Matt defined audience engagement as using analytics or using social media as part of your job. He surveyed journalists to find out how they were implementing analytics and how it tied to their job satisfaction. So Matt and I talked about the findings from this survey, and namely, we talked about how journalists who practiced audience engagement felt more satisfied with their work. Here’s Matt with the key insights from his research.

Matt: (04:54) When I first pursued the masters, I had this idea that I’m going to study the impact of all these job changes on journalists, because I had been preparing students for this very challenging journalism world. And then it ended up being, well, not only have jobs changed, but now there’s this new component of journalism jobs where the audience is suddenly a super important aspect to what we do. And maybe it always was the most important thing, it just wasn’t really considered or even taught in journalism schools that way.

Megan: (05:27) So I’m wondering, how did you define audience engagement in the context of your research? That’s kind of been a debate, of what exactly audience engagement means. I feel like it’s less debated that it’s important, but it does have kind of a malleable definition.

Matt: (05:41) You’re very right on that. This was the hardest part, probably, of doing this study, because I knew that just by picking any one definition, I was going to be leaving out people who could contribute to the research. And I did get some feedback from people who took the survey on it. I went with defining audience engagement as using analytics or using social media as part of your job. How the survey respondents interpreted that beyond that, I couldn’t control that, but that’s how I structured the questions.

Megan: (06:15) You mentioned a survey, but I was wondering if you could expand a little bit more on what the methodology was for your research, and how you developed the survey, and how you were going to reach people to ask for their opinions.

Matt: (06:30) The survey came out of some of the preliminary research I did when I was exploring job satisfaction. Job satisfaction is a widely studied thing across all kinds of industries, so there’s lots of handy tools that already exist to measure it accurately, but a tool that I settled on was this thing called a Job Diagnostic Survey, which was created, I want to say maybe in the ’50s, maybe earlier, maybe a little bit later. It was designed to study assembly line work and look for ways to tweak those jobs to make them more satisfying, more enriching, so that you could improve things like employee retention and employee performance, just by tweaking how a job is done, or what kind of tasks a person has at their job.

That really emerged to me as relevant because that’s exactly what has happened to journalism jobs, except I’m not convinced that it happened on purpose. People just got tasks assigned to them because they were the last person left in the room, so it wasn’t like, “Oh, journalism jobs have been really well designed, so let me study them.” It’s more like journalism jobs have inadvertently been redesigned, just through necessity, so it might be good to go back and look at how those things have affected people.

Megan: (07:56) So this is the beginning of the survey, and I’ll zip with one question right to the end of it, and say: what did you find? What was the answer that you ended up with, if not to all of your hypotheses, to one of them?

Matt: (08:09) There is a relationship between audience engagement and people feeling more satisfied with their job. What surprised me, maybe, might be that it wasn’t like a night and day difference, right. So I’m not going out there, and I’m not going to be preaching that if your people are unmotivated, give them engagement work and that’s going to make them motivated. It’s not a fix. It’s not a strategy to fix anything. But I think what it does is reinforce that there’s value to doing it that has effects beyond just the business mission, like it actually affects the people. Getting audience feedback affects them, and it affects how they do their job, and that’s what this measured.

That was kind of what I wanted to do, as well. I mean, I could have approached this topic and said, “Well, let me just interview 10 journalists about their thoughts on engagement,” and that would have been an interesting article, but what this study did was I got to talk to 100 journalists, and scientifically, actually showed what they’re saying has a relationship to this concept, and that I can show that through the data.

Megan: (09:19) When reviewing the data that you got, when looking at the responses from people in the survey, were there certain frustrations that arose in patterns or more frequently? Or was there any kind of common theme around what was complicated in journalism jobs, or frustrating people in newsrooms?

Matt: (09:42) Yeah, so my favorite question on the survey wasn’t anything data related. It was the very last question and it said, “What do you think of when you think of audience engagement?” Or, “What comes to mind when you think of audience engagement.” Now, this was when people poured out what they were thinking, and so this is what I’m talking about, where I say it’s like I interviewed 100 people.

Megan: Therapist question, yeah.

Matt: (10:02) Yeah, it was like a therapy question, and people were very honest, anything from, “We could be doing a much better job measuring engagement and using analytics but our small staff is spread extremely thin already, as far as responsibilities go.” You’re hearing people saying, “I’d love to do this but I have no time.” Some people say, “I engage often because it makes me better at my job, but we aren’t given the resources to do it, so it’s only coming from me. It’s not coming from management.”

You’re also hearing from people who, after two years of working at a organization, say, “No one talked to me about these numbers,” meaning their analytics reports. “No one talked to me about these numbers, what they mean, how they stack up, or what we should do differently.” So there is frustration there, as well, of like, “Okay, great, I got a number but it doesn’t turn into feedback unless I can contextualize that and turn it into action.”

Megan: (11:01) On the flip side to that question, or perhaps in other areas of the survey, did you get any feedback about what journalists who were focusing on audience engagement found satisfying in their jobs?

Matt: (11:15) There were several people—and remember, too, this is unprompted, it’s a very open-ended question—they would say, “Audience engagement makes me better at my job.” I mean, that was stated several times in the open comments. So it’s not very often you have people who say, “Oh, this extra task makes me better, this extra thing I have to do.” Most people are going to complain about an extra task that they’re required to do, but you’ve got people who either, through the culture of where they work, or through their mindset about it, are getting value and they’re figuring out how to use audience engagement to improve what they’re doing, and I think that’s the really cool part, and that’s probably what needs to be explored even more.

Megan: (11:59) Yeah, and why is that? What is that tapping into? Is it just a very high level feedback, I can evaluate my work? Is it something on a more emotional level?

Matt: (12:09) I think it’s a couple of different things, right. In the research, what came out was, where audience engagement had the biggest effect was the experience of having feedback on your work. So in the job theory that I used, feedback could be anything, right. It could be a pat on the back from your supervisor, or it could be just looking at what you’ve built and saying, “Wow, that’s a job well done. That’s a well-made machine,” and it’s going to allow you to be more satisfied with what you’re doing because even if you make mistakes, you’re aware of them and you can improve upon them.

People also said that audience engagement made their jobs more meaningful. So what that speaks to is, if you’re just a guy in an office, who cranks out reports and no one reads them, or you don’t know if anyone reads them or not, you don’t know if it affects anyone’s lives. If you never have any information about what you’re doing matters, that’s a dreary job and you’re going to burn out on doing something like that. So what people are telling me through this study is that having audience engagement reinforces that craving for meaningful work and it actually enhances that. And probably through doing it, they’re able to deliver even better journalism and even better work—that it’s like a feedback loop that just keeps getting better.

So those are the two biggest things. There’s also this idea of significance, which is related to meaningfulness, and that is, is my work—in the big scheme of things, does my work matter? People who did audience engagement also scored that highly, as well, so there’s a sense of like, I am actually helping either bring awareness, or I’m helping my community, or whatever the case may be, but they definitely feel like their jobs are more important because they have audience engagement as part of it.

Megan: (13:57 )I was wondering, having been a journalist, and are currently a journalist, and then having the research in the middle, did this resonate with your experiences, especially starting out in ’07, ’08 and having digital become more of a component of your work?

Matt: (14:13) Totally, yes. I mean, I think that was one of the cool things about doing it, was that throughout the whole process of reading other research, before I even started mine, I was doing a lot of head nodding, like, “Yes, I’ve experienced this, I’ve seen this.” I read papers about copy editor burnout and editor burnout, and I was like, “Yeah, I saw that happen.” Layoff survivors was another thread of research I looked at, because you get people left behind, that are still … they still have jobs but they’re wracked with guilt because they have jobs but they also have twice as many tasks to do and things like that.

It’s a really emotional journey because we all … I think people who are in journalism are in it for a peculiar reason, and that is that they just care about doing it well, and that requires a lot of emotional commitment. And it’s difficult when the job itself becomes difficult to do because of things outside of your control. Even in my own position now, I feel way better about my job when I’m talking to community members about stuff we’re working on, or they’re calling me up and giving me feedback on something, or they’re sharing a post on Facebook about something we did that affected them. I experience that in real-world terms. I come home in a better mood when my readers are happy, I’m more motivated to think of new ideas to keep them engaged or get them engaged, and it’s way more satisfying. I’ve experienced it myself, for sure.

Megan: (15:52) Have you ever experienced, in a newsroom, whether you were maybe leading the training or a part of the training, an approach to that difficulty of time and of having the impact of management be so important on everyone else when it comes to using feedback loops and benchmarking? Was there ever a training session that you were like, “Whoa, that was good,” or, “Oh, this is really encouraging people to take the next step from accessing feedback and actually applying it”?

Matt: (16:25) I think that, like here at Community Impact, we would have a monthly roll-up of wins, and I think that was a really good way to … rather than defining success as, here’s the top-read stories for the month, it’s like, “Here are three stories that we can learn from.” It might be, like, “Here’s one that did really well with Facebook audiences, and here’s one that did really well with SEO, in terms of getting audience, or here’s one that people really seemed to share a lot,” and really trying to unpack those things. I think showing people examples is probably the best way to go, of actual work being produced, and taking it beyond just one number.

Sachin: (17:17) What I really love about the research that Matt did here, and something that was novel to me, was the fact that this actually has an effect on your job, and whether you’re satisfied with that, or whether you find meaning or impact through that. So, to me, this research was just novel in proposing audience engagement in a completely different way than I think it’s been talked about.

Andrew: (17:39) I think being able to know that people are out there, enjoying the stuff you’re putting out, is really important. And in fact, if I were to relate this to maybe software a little bit, which is closer to home for me, if you interview really good software engineers and ask them why they want to build products, some of them will tell you, “Yeah, I want to build it because I really like programming and the craft of programming and such,” but most people actually say that they really want to build products that real people use and they want to have an impact on people’s lives with their software. That’s usually a pretty big motivation for software people. It’s part of the reason why software engineers love working at places like Google and Facebook, because you can have a really big impact to a lot of people.

So I think it’s just true that, if you detach yourself from your users, from your customers, from your audience, your job is just going to be less satisfying. And if you connect yourself to all of that engagement data, then it’ll feel much more real and like you’re really influencing people’s lives, so that’s pretty cool.

Sachin: (18:45) I also think that data shows things that are counterintuitive when it comes to audience engagement, that we assumed wouldn’t come into play. I remember we did a study with Pew Research a couple of years ago, where we looked at how people were using their mobile devices and how that affects engagement. I think one of the assumptions I had, prior to us doing the study, was that, “Well, it’s a smaller screen. Smaller form factors, in terms of content, are going to do better there,” and in fact, it was the opposite. We saw that long-form content actually performed better when it was on mobile than we would have expected there.

Sachin: (19:25) So that type of data, I think, is really encouraging on the engagement side, and can show that people are willing to spend their time in valuable ways that will help highlight the fact that the content you’re producing is creating the feedback loop that you want to see, and then makes your job more meaningful as a result.

Andrew: (19:46) Yeah, exactly. When we did that study, which was a few years back, the big conventional wisdom meme was snackable content. Everyone said, “Hey, you’ve got to produce 30-second videos.”

Sachin: (19:57) Yeah. There were a couple of jargon … it was like atomic content, quantize content, yeah.

Andrew: (20:02) Yes, yeah. Atomic content, man, I haven’t thought about that in a while. That’s definitely a jargon word that maybe has passed by a bit. But, yeah, there was just a lot of thought about this idea of, you know, mobile phones seem like, since they’re so constrained and small, that you’re only going to spend 20 seconds at a time. Total nonsense, it turns out. It turns out people are spending more time on their mobile phones than even on their desktop devices in a lot of cases.

And then in terms of content attention spans, again, people think no one’s going to read a long article. Again, it’s total nonsense. It turns out that the exact design of a smartphone, with edge to edge screens and easy scrolling at the flick of your thumb, is completely amenable to long-form content, right, even more so, in some respects, than a standard desktop monitor. I think that all that stuff just gets turned upside down by data.

We’ve been looking at a lot of data lately in the same direction. I recently was chatting with a customer and talking about Twitter as an engagement source, and I asked the customer, from their perspective, what do they think is the likely total percentage of traffic that Twitter drives to their own site. They thought it was 40%, and it turned out it was 1%, right, so there was a forty to one difference between the perception of how much traffic was driven by that channel and what the reality was in the data, which is pretty amazing. So, yeah, I think it’s much better when people understand this stuff at a metric level, even if there are ways that sometimes the incentives get kind of converted in the wrong direction.

Megan: (21:36) All right, you guys want to do some plus-ones, minus-ones?

Sachin: Sure.

Megan: Sure. Sure. Okay.

Andrew: (21:40) So we keep using the word audience engagement, and I guess if you don’t define that word carefully, it can just come off as jargon. It’s certainly appeared as jargon in a lot of media circles over the last few years. So maybe we can just go plus-one on minus-one on some of the jargon that really drives us crazy, and maybe some of the jargon that we actually like using in our day-to-day work.

Sachin: (22:03) All right, let’s go through some snap jargons here. Let’s start with bandwidth: plus-one, minus-one?

Andrew: (22:09) So bandwidth, you mean when people say, “Do you have bandwidth for that?”

Sachin: (22:12) Yeah, not like, “We need to up the bandwidth in AWS,” or whatever.

Andrew: (22:17) I’d say I’m minus-one on bandwidth as a sense of your personal availability. Yeah, I don’t think I’d use that.

Sachin: (22:23) Yeah, I’m with you. Just ask me what your schedule’s like or tell me if you need time.

Andrew: (22:28) Yeah. It also just makes it sound like you’re more important than you are, when you say you don’t have bandwidth or you need bandwidth or whatever.

Sachin: (22:34) Yes, definitely agree.

Andrew: (22:36) All right, so how about this one? How about, move the needle? Very popular in business circles, for sure.

Sachin: (22:41) I’m trying to think if I use that before I answer.

Andrew: (22:42) You definitely use that. You definitely use it.

Sachin: (22:46) All right. All right. But I’m still minus-one on that. I can use it and be minus-one, right? There’s no law against that.

Andrew: (22:53) I don’t know, I think you might have to be plus-one, because I think I’ve heard you use it a few times, so …

Sachin: (22:57) We’ve got to move the needle on this podcast right now.

Andrew: (23:01) I also think you use it a little negatively. You always say, “Oh, that won’t move the needle.”

Sachin: (23:07) Yeah, maybe it’s my way of just doubling down on the pejorative nature that I have of move the needle.

Andrew: (23:13) Yeah, exactly. Well, I think you have to be plus-one on it, by default and I’ll be minus-one on that one.

Sachin: (23:18) Fine, fine. All right, what about this? This one, I actually haven’t heard about until we were talking about this prior to the episode, we started this episode: double click.

Andrew: (23:28) Yeah, so this one, I’d heard about recently. I had seen it a few times but I was joking around with people about it. So for those who don’t know, you’ll often hear people say, “We need to drill down into that,” or, “We need to look into that,” but some people will actually say, “Let’s double click into that later,” as kind of like a way to say, “Let’s go deeper on it later.” I think it’s kind of hilarious as a jargon term because it kind of dates you as a ’90s desktop computer person who used Windows or something, but yeah, I don’t know. I’m minus-one on this because I think it’s just embarrassing to use, but what do you think?

Sachin: (24:01) I don’t know, I’ve just never seen it, so I can’t … I don’t have the context to judge it because I’ve never seen it. This can’t be a popular jargon term because I’ve … I don’t know, I’ve never seen it.

Megan: (24:12) Hypothetically, I think it’s insane.

Sachin: (24:17) Yeah.

Andrew: (24:17) All right, well, how about this one: ping me? So, like, “Ping me later if you need a little help with that?”

Sachin: (24:21) Yeah, I’m fine with that. Plus-one.

Andrew: (24:24) Yeah, I think I’m plus-one on that, too. I don’t think there’s anything too harmful there. I guess a variant on that one is, touch base. So you do you like when people say, “Let’s touch base later”?

Sachin: (24:33) I don’t. Minus-one.

Andrew: (24:34) Yeah, minus-one for me, too. I would actually put touch base on my banned word list, personally. I think that people should come up with—

Sachin: (24:41) Well, let’s get into the banned word list. This is the list of words where you actually call people out if they use this jargon. For example, Megan has a few here that are banned for her. Why don’t you list a few of those?

Megan: (24:55) Oh, my gosh. I can’t stand abbreviations, certain abbreviations, especially … sorry, Dad … but when my Dad texts me, “K.”

Sachin: (25:02) Just the letter, the single letter K.

Megan: (25:04) Just the letter K. “Oh, I’m free on this day and this time for our wonderful birthday dinner.” “K.”

Sachin: (25:12) Mr. Radogna, if you’re listening, take note.

Megan: (25:16) I also—AFAIK and TIL. You can just write it out.

Andrew: (25:24) That’s funny. I think I’m a user of both of those.

Sachin: (25:28) Yeah, you definitely are.

Andrew: (25:29) And TIL, I think I’m a regular user of, but … yeah.

Megan: (25:34) Wait, let’s get your—what’s your perspective on it? Why do you like it? Change my mind.

Andrew: (25:39) Well, I think TIL kind of feels just like a little bit of a jokesy internet culture thing to me.

Megan: (25:45) Sure. It’s a little—

Andrew: (25:47) Yeah, you just sort of open a tweet with TIL and you’re just saying, “Wow, that was surprising, I didn’t know that already.” It’s just kind of a shorthand for that. But I … yeah, I don’t really have much more of a thought on it than that. I guess if it annoys you too much, Megan, I’ll stop using it.

Megan: (26:04) No, don’t. TIL Andrew likes this phrase. I’ll be onboard with it. What do you not like?

Andrew: (26:12)I feel like AFAIK, as far as I know, I feel like that’s one of those maybe … that’s one where I could probably convince myself that I should stop using it, because it’s sort of like a nervous tic abbreviation, I think. I think it’s just saying, “Like.” It’s just sort of something you throw in front of a sentence and you’re not really thinking much about it.

Sachin: (26:33) The only one that I have, and this still makes me cringe when I’m about to say it, which is going to happen right now, and it goes back to when I was in undergrad and grad school, this would be used all the time in class, when somebody would have an idea and then somebody else would have another idea, and then another student would raise their hand and they would say, “I just want to piggyback off of what so-and-so was saying.” Piggyback, I just, like, I wanted to punch people in the face. That, to me, is the worst.

Andrew: (27:04) Brings back bad memories for you?

Sachin: (27:06) Yeah. No. Sorry. Stop it.

Megan: (27:10) Yeah, well, I was going to say, so to piggyback on that, what are some of the words you use you wish you didn’t?

Sachin: (27:15) Get out of here. Get out of here. Get out.

Megan: (27:20) Great, so it’s been a good day, have fun finishing this up. I’ll show myself out.

All right, cool. That’s it for this episode. Thanks for listening and our thanks to Matt Dulin for joining us as a guest! You can subscribe to The Center of Attention on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, SoundCloud, Stitcher or Spotify. If you enjoy the show, please, tell a colleague or tell a friend. You can also follow our hosts on Twitter. Andrew is @amontalenti, and Sachin is @SachinKamdar. Thanks again for listening, and remember, we’re plus-one on audience engagement. Until next time.