Takeaway: Tow Tea: New Forms of Reader Engagement

As news organizations grapple with how to cultivate reader engagement through their online offerings, metrics are becoming a central subject of analysis and experimentation in many newsrooms. At our Tow tea on Nov. 20, about 20 people gathered at Columbia Journalism School to discuss new forms of reader engagement with Amanda Zamora, Senior Engagement Editor at ProPublica and Brian Abelson, Knight Mozilla Open News fellow at the New York Times.

Abelson discussed his research for the NYT, in which he analyzed on a month’s worth of articles in terms of how they were promoted and the traffic they received.

When judging the “success” of an article, he said, you have to evaluate how it is shared.

“Turns out being tweeted by the NYT account, being on the homepage guaranteed the success of articles,” he said.

Abelson explained that a lot of content that is meaningful doesn’t really have a news cycle, meaning that  instead of limiting efforts to a single Tweet when it first publishes, you can continue to promote the story later on. “It doesn’t have to die in a day,” he said.

Zamora’s focus at ProPublica is less on quantitative measures, and more on audience engagement. For example, ProPublica has experimented with platforms like ReadrBoard, which allows users to post “reactions” in addition to comments.

“It’s easy to use,” Zamora said of ReadrBoard, noting that it allowed audiences to engage with ProPublica’s work with less effort than it would take to generate a thoughtful comment. Readrboard is also used by the Tow Center.

Zamora has also found that giving feedback to users is an important part of building engagement. If audience member offer tips or story suggestions, they need to know what becomes of their input. Her strategy is to build a core audience for a story through discussions in the comments section. Those readers who return to the site may then start to build a community around a particular investigation. “Returning visitors and shares for me are expressions of loyalty,” she said.

ProPublica is also experimenting with the Facebook app Cloudtangle and a new commenting system that allows users to post comments on ProPublica through their social accounts, in order to help keep track of the conversations around their stories that happen on other platforms. Zamora and Abelson agreed that a lack of metrics beyond their own site was holding back many news organizations’ ability to make the most of their content.

Buzzfeed is successful not because of cat pictures, but because they track the usage of 200 news sites,” Abelson said. “There is no way the New York Times, or Propublica, or anyone can compete with that.”

Shiwani Neupane is a Digital Media Associate for the Tow Center. She tweets regularly at @shiwanineupane