Audience Engagement Digital Publishing
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Reuters’ “Rebooting audience engagement when journalism is under fire”

Imagine, if you will, what it’s like to be a journalist in a destabilized democracy. And to make matters worse, imagine that you are continuously targeted through orchestrated digital disinformation campaigns and politically motivated attacks on media freedom.

Unfortunately, such circumstances are an everyday occurrence for numerous independent journalists and media organizations around the world. And yet, despite the odds, there are those who refuse to succumb to such political pressures (as well as the risks of ‘platform capture’) by actively redefining audience engagement.

In the report for Reuters – “What if Scale Breaks Community? Rebooting Audience Engagement When Journalism is Under Fire” – authors Julie PosettiFelix Simon, and Nabeelah Shabbir present a riveting account of how three news organizations are fighting for their survival and independence in countries where media is free in name only.

Their names are Rappler (the Philippines), Daily Maverick (South Africa), and The Quint (India) – news organizations that literally embody the phrase ‘necessity is the mother of all invention’. Although each organization has its own battle to fight, the thing they have in common is that they are constantly stepping up their game by being “increasingly focused on forging deeper, narrower, and stronger relationships with their audiences, emphasizing physical encounters, investment in niche audiences over empty reach, and leading communities to action.”

The peculiar case of rage against the machine

These initiatives might not be selling out stadium concerts like the renowned band, but they are nonetheless effectively resisting their government’s efforts to shut them down thanks to constant experimentation and self-evaluation. The innovative responses outlined in all three cases examined here should serve as inspiration and learning for news organizations worldwide.

All three digital-born news media organizations have a lot on their respective plates: navigating audience engagement in the context of rapid developments in a digital, mobile, and platform-dominated media environment and unyielding political pressures that ‘weaponize’ social media in order to target and harass individual journalists, entire organizations, as well as their audiences.

Considering that digital audience engagement is relatively new compared to the entire history of journalism, this ‘weaponization’ of online audiences and social media platforms is a major issue worldwide, especially in volatile democracies.

No doubt, such disruption demands strategic and innovative responses from news organizations internationally. But the irony is, the news organizations studied in the report have turned to offline relationship-building in order to find a solution. That’s right! They are organizing real, physical encounters with their audiences as the means to support civic engagement and collective action in response to innumerable interlinked social and political crises (i.e. legal action, demonization by political leaders, prolific online harassment, and digital security threats, to name a few).

Other responses also include media literacy campaigns calling for civility and responsible sharing among online communities, active collaborations with civil society organizations and ‘loyal’ audiences to defend media freedom, and experimentation with membership programs. 

“The core of Rappler really is the civic engagement,” says Rappler’s long-term head of Digital Communications, Stacy de Jesus. Their mission is to use both online and offline channels to grow ‘communities of action’, and to help build institutions bottom-up to support democracy in the Philippines – only 25 years after the end of the Marcos dictatorship. 

Rappler’s civic engagement arm – the Move.PH community – is both digital and physical. It is supported by a network of grassroots community organizers who plan and facilitate Rappler events, technology and digital media literacy training sessions, while also contributing to community-generated editorial campaigns across the country.

“All of this is aligned with our community-building and relationship-building and our hunger for pushing for social good, but at the same time, it’s also aligned with our revenue goals and missions,” de Jesus says.

South Africa’s Daily Maverick sees itself as strongly independent and egalitarian. It’s an upstart news organization that punches above its weight in terms of impact, and irritates many of its establishment media rivals in the process.

In the spirit of activism, the outlet made global headlines with its whistleblower-based #GuptaLeaks, and Bell-Pottinger disinformation investigations, which exposed a web of corruption connected to the state and uncovered a disinformation campaign designed to manipulate South African politics. Or as Branko Brkic, DM’s Editor-in-Chief and our native from Serbia, puts it: “Phenomenal stories resonate”, pointing to the potential to build deeply invested communities around high-impact public interest journalism.

Last, but not least, The Quint is an organization that harnesses the power of educational, explanatory, and advocacy journalism in order to promote social change. The Quint has worked with BBC Hindi, Google, and Facebook to fund and expand upon special advocacy in a range of projects designed to encourage readers to engage in fact-checking, to write their own stories, and to pay them for their continuous efforts. 

Enduring threats and audience ‘toxicity’

Due to their self-identified role as ‘guardians of democracy’, all three organizations have often suffered attacks by political actors seeking to curb media freedom and critical reporting in their countries.

According to Maria Ressa, Rappler’s CEO and Executive Editor, “the weaponization of the tools of free expression” has also developed a form of audience toxicity that can be felt in both the tone and themes of the discourse within online communities. This is manifested through brutal online harassment of journalists, falling trust in the news media, as well as publicly putting credible, independent journalism in the same context with misinformation and ‘fake news’. 

When Rappler began critically reporting on the Duterte Government, its largely female staff was faced with a so-called ‘patriotic trolling’ campaign of online harassment linked to the state itself. Often sexualized and promoting threats of violence, such attacks exposed the staff to physical as well as digital safety threats, which turned the open online communities in which they operated ‘toxic’. As a direct consequence, the scalable engagement-centered news ecosystem that Rappler was known for was suddenly poisoned, resulting in a loss of approximately 50,000 Facebook followers.

Daily Maverick journalists also had to cope with grueling online harassment. For instance, the #GuptaLeaks investigations exposed DM to an orchestrated disinformation campaign run by the now-defunct UK-based PR firm Bell-Pottinger. The firm manipulated and racialized economic debates using ‘sock puppet networks’ and ‘troll armies’ that picked on journalists – especially female journalists.

Pauli Van Wyk, who led the coverage of #GuptaLeaks with Branko Brkic, said breaking major corruption stories involving the populist Economic Freedom Fighters party made her the prime target of some of the worst gendered online harassment endured by South African journalists. “If Pauli hasn’t been threatened with rape 20 times by lunchtime today, it’s not a normal Friday,” says Brkic, explaining that such attacks on his journalists have only worsened during the course of 2019.

Often accused of being anti-national, journalists at The Quint also continue to endure significant online harassment in their daily work, pointing out that the attacks against women were particularly severe and accompanied by threats of physical violence. This led The Quint to respond by changing work routines to minimize exposure, counseling, workshops, taking legal action and granting the opportunity to take some time off if circumstances pose too much of a risk.

And yet, ‘flipping everything upside down’ isn’t the sole preserve of illiberal democracies. A feature that authors called ‘platform capture’ can also negatively affect the relationship between newsrooms and their audiences.

For instance, WhatsApp was The Quint’s main tool for collaborating with audiences on their WebQoof disinformation identification and debunking project. But once terms and conditions were changed against automated or bulk messaging, it caused a problem, forcing The Quint to undertake a mammoth task of transitioning their audience to another app – Telegram. 

“We have 26,000 people on Telegram right now, and on WhatsApp we have 100,000–140,000.” explains Medha Charkabartty, Head of Audience Growth and Social Media. “The challenge is to move them all while keeping in mind they might not be responsive or might have their misgivings.”

Responding to threats: from offline to online and back again

The capacity to respond innovatively to external threats and the ‘unintended consequences’ of digital transformation is a key marker for sustainable journalism innovation identified within these news organizations (Posetti et al. 2019). 

Interestingly enough, Daily Maverick hasn’t really been keen on building a brand on social media – something which has baffled DM’s CEO, Styli Charalambous, for quite some time. But with the now-prevalent issues of audience toxicity, ‘platform capture’, and other risks that might affect engagement, now he wonders if that avoidance was actually a bold strategic move.

Namely, from the very beginning of DM’s existence, the outlet boasts an 8-year tradition of favoring in-person meetings with their audiences over digital interactions. Also known as ‘The Gathering’, the objective was, is, and will continue to be connecting the editorial staff with their readership through face-to-face conversations – an event that started with 200 participants in 2010, and now that number has reached 1050, a growth of 425%.

Another analogous tactic employed by the DM staff is the publication of a Daily Maverick yearbook, which features collections of long-form stories and investigations from DM’s crew of high-profile journalists and commentators.

Rappler, too, understood the necessity of connecting online and offline communities with its content. “If the premise of the whole social news network company is to really be social and build a community around it, and if you really want to hear what people have to say,” says Stacy de Jesus, Rappler’s former Head of Digital Communications, “then you have to also meet them on the ground.” 

Despite the ongoing attacks on Rappler, its annual ‘Social Good Summit’ – a gathering originally conceived to demonstrate social media’s power for ‘social good’ – now serves to establish and maintain partnerships with civil society organizations. Just this year in September, the event emphasized the importance of offline community-building – a strategy that paid off for Rappler, with community-organized events now being staged around the Philippines to support fundraising for the organization and its unfairly prosecuted founders.

At The Quint, physical events also predated their move to membership. For instance, a #TalkingStalking event was held prior to a petition to raise support for a bill to make stalking a non-bailable offense. In addition, The Quint flew in ten prominent women featured in ‘Me, the Change’ movement to Delhi for an event attended by stakeholders, policymakers and NGOs. “They somehow made a genuine impact,” says Senior Reporter Maanvi, as invitations came pouring from all over the world in hopes to promote women’s work in various fields such as rugby, safety at school, or preserving rare tribal languages.

Fueling audience engagement with memberships

Interestingly enough, none of the news organizations mentioned here started with a membership program. And yet, in the past year, every single one of them has included membership into their monetization strategy as a way of deepening audience engagement in a bid to encourage loyal readers to stand for democracy and media freedom.

While their level of investment in membership varies, in each case, this addition has been a natural trajectory that stemmed from either experimentation with social platform engagement and community-building (Rappler and The Quint), events connected to their editorial missions (all three), or their newsletter strategy (Daily Maverick).

No doubt, the difficult and unforgiving political conditions led these news organizations to translate the existing loyalty of their core audience into something that goes well beyond simple transactions. It is also a matter of trust and of purpose. 

For Rappler, the existing communities within Move.PH civic engagement arm were already contributing to the crowdfunding of the outlet – so it made perfect sense that they were going to be the first to sign up. While Rappler has only reached a mass of 1,000 members so far, each paying US$70 per year, there are nonetheless signs of steady growth.

Or as Managing Editor, Glenda Gloria says, “crisis brings opportunity”. And even though the membership model was more of a stop-gap measure, Rappler’s biggest audience engagement investment paved the way to launching their new publishing platform in early 2020.

While Rappler’s membership program came into existence OUT of the need to diversify revenue streams and to reinforce their loyal community, Daily Maverick’s membership push was mainly born out of financial necessity. 

Towards the middle of 2017, the situation had become increasingly precarious and necessitated an effective solution. After an ‘innovation tour’ around US newsrooms hosted by Poynter, and subsequent consultation with the Membership Puzzle Project about the program development, the Daily Maverick crew came to a conclusion that it was a viable way to establish a more stable source of income.

As of August 18, 2018, ‘Insiders’ can now contribute a voluntary amount (over a minimum threshold of 75 Rand or US$4.90 per month) in return for an exclusive ‘behind-the-scenes’ newsletter and the option to comment on articles, among other things. But most importantly, CEO Charalambous stresses that anyone who contributes even the smallest amount will also be included in the greater Maverick Insider community. Moreover, there is also a plan to expand the Insider program by allowing members to contribute in non-financial ways, making membership more accessible particularly to South Africa’s low-income earners.

As for The Quint, their membership efforts are part of the efforts to make the outlet’s financial position more secure, ultimately helping to maintain it as an outlet that provides freely accessible, public service journalism.

This outlet first began experimenting with a membership program in March/April 2019 with the goal to ‘empower independent journalism’. However, the project is still in its cocoon. Members pay between 200 and 5,000 rupees (US$3–70) while ‘premium’ members are also granted access to live webinars, which allow them to communicate directly with the outlet’s editorial staff. In addition, they receive an ad-free service, access to a premium Telegram group, free entry to The Quint’s paid events, and special newsletters.

“With every new special project or members-exclusive initiative we launch,” says Aaqib Raza Khan, The Quint’s Associate Editor, “we learn something new. For example, with our experience in hosting webinars for members, we now wish to tweak the format a bit, make it more participatory, and more dynamic.”

We invite you to read the full report

To be candid, the downside of digesting such as extensive report is that you have to omit all those nitty-gritty nuances that really put things into perspective and make your eyes pop. Hopefully, this piece is enough to pique your curiosity and make you reach for your reading glasses. 

But most of all, kudos to RapplerDaily Maverick and The Quint. We’re only too aware of the problems facing journalists who operate in countries with less-than-ideal democratic norms. We salute you. 

And to all the readers out there, we hope you can support independent journalists and media freedom fighters from your local communities.

We’ll try our best to do the same.

by Marko Dorić

Republished with kind permission of Content Insights, the next generation content analytics solution that translates complex editorial data into actionable insights.

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