Audience Engagement in a Time of Social Distancing 

By: Jennifer Dorroh | 06/25/2020

The International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) is connecting journalists with health experts and newsroom leaders through a webinar series on COVID-19. The series is part of our ICFJ Global Health Crisis Reporting Forum — a project with our International Journalists’ Network (IJNet).

Audience engagement and service journalism—well-researched, advice on practical matters — are taking on new importance and driving change in newsrooms during the global COVID-19 pandemic, three engagement editors said during a webinar this week hosted by ICFJ and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University

The pandemic is “a time for us to shift how we think about service journalism, and what that means to communities," said Ebony Reed, new audiences chief at The Wall Street Journal. “Our key strategy has been to answer audience questions and to couple that with resources,” she said. During the pandemic, the news organization launched WSJ Money and WSJ Jobs to offer help and advice to readers. She thinks service journalism will help the news industry stand out and win audiences’ trust. 

Reed, along with Nabeelah Shabbir, conversation editor at The Correspondent and Chris Moran, head of editorial innovation at The Guardian, talked with ICFJ Global Research Director Dr. Julie Posetti and Tow Center Director Emily Bell about audience engagement in the time of the pandemic. 

The Correspondent, which offers perspectives from the Global South, uses a solutions journalism approach to its coverage. "Right at the beginning of the pandemic, we decided the best thing we could offer was a kind of noise-canceling service,” Shabir said. “If everybody's trying to find out more information, it's our role to help readers find and filter that information so that they can engage and stay informed without feeling overwhelmed and disheartened."

During the pandemic, the site launched its “Fixing the Future,” project  “where we invited people to come and offer solutions to different problems,” she said. 

The pace of newsroom change to meet the public’s urgent information needs is accelerating quickly during the pandemic, Moran said. Newsrooms are “trying to pack 10 years of change into 10 weeks,” he said. “And placing your bets in a situation when you're more and more probably resource constrained as well is really challenging.” 

The key, he thinks, is listening to the audience. “How do we hear from them and how does it impact my journalism?” he asked. 

“We've long had a real commitment to community journalism, to putting out call outs,” to readers, but the pandemic has put that commitment front and center, he said. “It’s absolutely become more cemented within the newsroom.”

“Editors who are realizing that this is the kind of key which allows us to get into things like diversity, making people believe that we're hearing that voice and also reflecting it back at them,” he said.

The webinar was part of the Journalism and the Pandemic Project, a collaboration between ICFJ and the Tow Center. The Journalism and the Pandemic Project is also mapping the impacts of COVID-19 on journalism worldwide, and it aims to help inform the recovery. Learn more, and take the survey, here. 

[View past webinars and key quotes]

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