NPR Training
Storytelling tips and best practices

How to weave audience engagement into your reporting process

Kelsey Proud is a Digital Innovation Editor at St. Louis Public Radio

Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from Kelsey’s 2015 guide, The News Is Served: A practical framework for newsrooms to connect with niche communities. Watch a related webinar and check out her list, Seven Questions For Engaging Stories and Projects.


Ah, reporting. The bread-and-butter of the journalistic process. This might feel like we’ve just put on an old, comfortable sweater, but here are a few fresh tips you can use to inject easy bits of modern engagement within the tried-and-true.

Pre-reporting

Ask outside the newsroom

While you’re formulating which questions you’d like to ask, consult with members of the community what they most want to know about the issue. This can be done publicly (say, on social media) or privately. Most of all, do this in the place where members of the community most affected by the topic (or in most need of the information) already are. This will build interest for your work and pre-story reader/listener/viewer buy-in.

Don’t worry if the story falls through or takes a different turn. People are used to being asked their opinions by now and know things change. If anyone asks, be honest about your process and say, simply “I wanted to tell the story as well as I could and as truthfully as I could. That’s why I went a different direction.” Transparency is key and refreshing in an era when people are increasingly distrustful of “the media.” Show them the human thought process behind your work.

If you’re using Twitter to consult the community, here are a couple of sample tweet formats for this type of engagement: “I’m interviewing an underwater basket weaver Tuesday. What do you want to know?” or “Live in Neighborhoodtown? What questions do you have about the new school?”

  • Remember to keep these short; you’ll want folks to have plenty of room to reply.
  • Think about the nature of the topic. Is it something people will likely want to respond to in public or private? If it’s a delicate or potentially embarrassing topic, provide an email address for responses or set up a Google form they can fill out.
  • As with any responses you get, these are starting points. Verify them as you would any other source.

While reporting

Share as you go

Interview someone? If appropriate, take a photo of them, share a quote if you had a great interview (maybe not your juiciest, but something still compelling or interesting) and say, “Stay tuned for the rest of the story soon.” Be sure to let the person know that you’re posting the photo and quote — and use their social media handles while sharing.

  • Sample for Twitter/or Instagram (or remove handles and replace with tags if possible for Facebook): (With photo attached) “Artist @KelseyProud says ‘Underwater basket weaving changed my life.’ Full interview soon on @newsorghandle.”
  • If you’re working on a big project, be sure to include the hashtag you’ve designated for it, if applicable.

After reporting

Share that story

Why do the story at all if no one sees/hears/reads it? Remember those people you talked to for initial questions or those you identified as most affected by the topic? This is your chance to let them know about your work in the biggest way. Go after it.

Share it on social media. Don’t feel boxed in by using just the headline and a link — pull your best facts, quotes and statements to share. Why would someone care about this story? Use that. (And ask that question for great headlines, too).

  • Share your story more than once, but space it out by a few hours or so.
  • Consider the tone of the story and subject matter. Think of what people will be doing when interacting with your work: Will they be out at a bar? Relaxing at home? Traveling to work? Share during the time (and day of the week) they’re most likely to be receptive to your topic or story. Don’t know these specifics? Ask members of the communities around the topic and go from there.
  • Remember to share your story where the people who are most affected by the topic of your story are talking to each other – this can mean online or in person, if possible.

Use your legacy medium (if you have one like print, TV, or radio) to cross-promote as appropriate.

  • Be specific in these cross promotions. For example, say “For great photos of the underwater basket weaving studio, visit our website,” or “To learn how to make a basic basket, visit our website.” Do not say, “For more with artist Kelsey Proud visit our website.” You want to see those photos, right? Or learn how to make a basket? Of course you do. What does “for more” mean? Not much.

Remain open to new leads and connections

It’s often during these sharing sessions that more questions can lead to other stories from the community. Be on the lookout for these opportunities and seize them.

Use social media for testing

This is a fun time to try some different things and see what works. Try some A/B testing of different tweets from the same story and then measure your results in quantitative and qualitative ways (more on that below). What works best? Does targeting individuals about a story work better than sending out a general tweet or posting? Find out what works best for your news organization on different stories.

Define your metrics for success (qualitative and quantitative)

When judging the success of a story, numbers aren’t the only metric, but they are the easiest to use. The best assessment of success should include both quantitative and qualitative measurements and observations.

  • For quantitative analysis, use the metrics tools native to the social networks you’ve used to share your stories. If these tools are not available or don’t exist, you may have to decide for yourself what the most important numerical metric is for the platform and the story. Discuss this as a team.
  • For qualitative analysis, things get a little more interesting. Did the story get shared by influencers in a community? That’s a plus. Was it shared by people who are really directly affected by it? Also a plus.
  • For more on both qualitative and quantitative engagement metrics, and picking a metric or two that’s best for you, see Joy Mayer’s work on “The Engagement Metric.” It has tons of practical tips and exercises for countless different types of journalistic projects and approaches and is arguably the most comprehensive guide on the subject to date. To duplicate it here would short-change you, so check it out.