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Editor’s Letter – Let’s Get Engaged!

getting engaged media investigation

It’s BayMozaic’s half-year anniversary and we are considering getting engaged. Since setting out on our publication adventure in March, Co-Editor Gohar and I have been refining on the fly. We have a mission to guide our content, but confess that data hasn’t played a big (or even small) role in our decisions. In a grand gesture of denial, I tell myself that she and our tech guru Tigran can do that anytime we want. We haven’t. So, it’s high time we got engaged. With our audience.

But how? For inspiration and schooling, I attended a Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) event, Dissection 1: Impact. No, we are not an investigative reporting site (you know that already) but could learn from journalists about how they engage with readers and track response.

CIR’s Lindsay Green-Barber suggested that stories or series of stories might hit one of three levels of impact:

Macro – new policies are born
Meso – changes the discussion/discourse about the issue
Micro – individual changes (an individual boycotts grapes, for example)

Their journalists seriously engage. In a recent investigation of pesticides in the Central Valley (read this!), they conducted (bilingual) surveys with residents and brought in a theater ensemble to present the findings. They saw a rise in community activism against pesticide use in their area.

In the old media days, knowing whether your story had legs after you posted wasn’t always such a big deal. Newspapers paid journalists to report. They printed stories and hoped they made a difference (of course, serious investigators pushed for more). But the new business model for journalism relies on foundations and individual donors to bring in the revenue. Data matters. Whether a story is read, by whom and to what end becomes vital to a publication’s survival.

The new funding paradigm and its focus on data ushers in both positives and negatives for public information.  How publication decision makers use the data will make the difference. Editors, founders, business managers are making decisions based on “likes,” reach and shares. A quick glance at the “trending stories” of any major paper will discourage us, if data is based on these measures. In fact, I’ve seen a couple of online nonprofit news sites turn from community, hyper local news about health, housing, transport, jobs and crime to, essentially, lifestyle magazines about restaurants and entertainment. That’s where the “likes” must have led them.

How do we define impact? Media Impact Project’s Dana Chinn defines impact as a change in the status quo after a media intervention. The change could be correlative or causative. Maybe we see that the media intervention changed the level of awareness. So, to what degree? Among whom? She listed the tools to measure these.

Things get troubling when the impact data then drives media investments. If more readers are interested in your stories about puppies, then will you invest on warm and fuzzy stories to keep those readers? “Data is a tool, it shouldn’t dictate resource allocation,” reiterated Chinn. It shouldn’t, but it very well might.

My team can definitely use the data tools and see what surfaces. To have a “gut” sense about what BayMozaic readers like is really having no sense at all. Our denial about data lies in apprehension about what the data will reveal. It makes us vulnerable, and wouldn’t it be more fun to write stories and take awesome photos?

Chinn noted that evidence about impact should be more than a measure of stories “read.” New visitors don’t really count, they begin to matter to shaping your understanding when they come back to your stories. Returning visitors and shares are where it’s at. She shared how the Center can slice and dice the data by geography and other variables.

How do you get them coming back? Write well, write on interesting topics (that connect us with real people and lives) and engage. Engagement can be wacky AND strategic, as the Dissection panelists shared. Wacky and great – the Eye on Oakland bus which takes an investigation about surveillance in Oakland to the people (with a Ford Falcon van). Check them out on Twitter #eyesonoak.  Strategic – the AJ+ short issue videos.

Our takeaway – we need to buck up and look at the data. BayMozaic is only six months old but that shouldn’t give us a free pass. We may not have the resources to be elaborate about data and engagement, but knowing what you, our readers, are reading is a first step. Whatever decisions that follow won’t be based on fairy dust and wishful thinking. We will still be psyched to bring you interviews of Bay Areans who are improving our lives. We will continue to snap photos of their work and of our beautiful region. Here we go!

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