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Comparing New News Models: How Engagement Strategies and Impact Intersect

Jessica Clark

How are news-focused public media projects tracking their impact? That’s the question that CSM Research Fellow Erin Roberts set out to explore in a set of interviews with leaders from innovative journalism projects.

This month in the Public Media 2.0 Showcase, we present highlights from four of those interviews. Each of the profiled projects represents a different model for engaging users—strategic decisions that in turn affect the ways in which project leaders define and measure success.

Content-focused: Of the four projects, the PBS NewsHour represents the most traditional journalistic approach, with reporters and editors controlling the production of news from start to finish, engaging users only once content is posted. As a result, explains Robert Flynn, NewsHour's Vice President of Communications & Marketing, the site’s producers measure their impact primarily in terms of reach and influence, considering interactions with and among users as an important but secondary indicator of success.

User-informed: The Public Insight Network aims to shift the newsroom dynamic by engaging a network of users as both experts and story sources. As Public Insight Network editor Andrew Haeg explains, while project leaders consider reach when assessing their impact, they are equally interested in exploring how Public Insight Journalism creates stronger ties between users and the newsrooms that use the network. They see the use of their model by other newsrooms to be a strong indicator that participants value the shift from “Rolodex reporting” to a more bottom-up approach.

User-driven: GroundReport positions users as contributors, providing a platform for citizen journalists around the world to “tell their stories.” The site’s producers take a proactive approach to building reach, tracking a variety of audience and social media metrics and strongly encouraging contributors to promote their work. However, they also judge the site’s success by whether their coverage is providing new angles on coverage of global issues, and whether it is helping contributors to establish themselves as professional reporters.

Community-centered: Oakland Local is a website by and for the people of Oakland, California. Founded in part in response to mainstream coverage of the fatal police shooting of unarmed civilian Oscar Grant, Oakland Local strives to publish the voices that are too often left out of public conversations. The site measures success primarily through direct feedback from its core constituency of community members and local partner organizations.

As these four examples demonstrate, methods for assessing the impact of news-focused public media projects shift according to the model of user engagement that producers select. They also illustrate the different definitions that a media organization can have for an engaged user – for NewsHour, it is an influential viewer; for Public Insight Network, a responsive participant; for GroundReport, a valued contributor, and for Oakland Local, an empowered community member. While public media continues to move towards creating and assessing impact, its definition of that impact is still up for interpretation.