I recently participated in a fascinating workshop hosted by Talia Stroud of The Engaging News Project. Housed at the University of Texas at Austin, the Project has a single aim: “to provide research-based techniques for engaging online audiences in commercially-viable and democratically-beneficial ways.”  One of my favorite of the Project’s experiments to date explored what happens when you replace the ubiquitous “like” button with a “respect” button (spoiler alert: people share more moderate, less ideologically extreme news).

Talia’s conference proved to be one of the most thought-provoking gatherings I’ve attended in a long while. Fellow attendees included digital editors from the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, NPR,  the Daily Beast, and the Washington Post, to name a few.  To steal a quote from one of the newsroom attendees: “I could not sleep the night I returned home [from the conference] as my brain was racing with ideas.” 

I subsequently caught up with Talia to hear her insights about the state of the news business, and what it means for our democracy.

Kelly Born: An estimated 40 percent of Americans get their news online today. But many online news sites are struggling so much financially that there are very few resources left to experiment with ways to advance the “democratic bottom line.” What do you see as the biggest risks to democracy posed by these recent changes in media?

Talia Stroud: One risk is that the democratic bottom line could give way to the commercial bottom line.  As the workshop participants told us, advertisers are interested in page views.  If the Kardashians yield an uptick in page views, then news organizations have a financial incentive to cover them.  Several studies document an appetite for that kind of soft news. Although there are cases where business and democratic goals conflict, it doesn’t have to be the case.  The Engaging News Project looks to identify those sweet spots where both can be advanced.  In the long run, I believe that it is important for news organizations to emphasize their democratic mission.

A second risk involves divisions in the news ecosystem.  Some news organizations remain profitable and have budgets for digital innovation.  Others are not as lucky.  To the extent that the “have” news organizations differ from the “have-nots,” this makes me worried.  Although national news outlets may thrive, more local news outlets may not.  We recently analyzed interactive features available on local versus top news websites, and found that top news sites were much, much better off.  For many of the features we considered, such as the availability of links to related and recommended news content, websites associated with top news outlets were more likely to have the feature than more locally-focused sites.  That’s why the Engaging News Project works with diverse news outlets to create tools and evaluate audience engagement practices.

Kelly Born: What developments are you most excited about – i.e., what gives you hope?

Talia Stroud: I am optimistic about the future of the news media.  Despite resource challenges, there are exciting new developments.  We heard about many fantastic innovations at the News Engagement Workshop – from innovative ways of structuring the comment section at the New York Times to the Washington Post’s TruthTeller project to the Wall Street Journal’s health care interactive (a report on the workshop will be released on our website on April 29th and includes many other exciting ideas from all of the workshop participants).  New approaches also are emerging, as news organizations partner with universities (Dallas Morning News, Sacramento Bee), use A/B testing (Daily Beast), and develop new funding models (Texas Tribune).  Not surprisingly, I’m also really excited about what the Engaging News Project brings to this space.  By helping news organizations test the effectiveness of promising practices and tools, we can better understand what works and what does not.  Related organizations, such as the American Press Institute and Poynter, also are making important contributions and helping to spread the word about innovative journalism practices.

Kelly Born: What barriers do newsrooms face in making these changes on their own?

Talia Stroud: Many newsrooms do not have the resources to devote to innovation or systematic evaluations of what practices work.  Over time, news organizations have more to do with fewer resources.  Television news and newspaper outlets, for instance, not only maintain their traditional news products, but also create content for the web and mobile.  This involves new ways of presenting information, from online videos to interactive infographics.  At the same time, newsroom revenues have been declining.  Television news audiences and newspaper circulations have fallen, due in part to the increasing popularity of online news.  Gains in online advertising revenues have not made up for offline advertising losses.  News organizations also face new competition from niche outlets attracting advertisers and audiences that used to provide a consistent revenue stream.  Information about the weather was once, and arguably still is, a mainstay of local news outlets.  Yet it is now easily accessed on an app dedicated to the weather.  With these daunting realities, many news organizations have been forced to reduce their staff or, in some cases, to shut down the entire operation.  Despite these barriers, we remain optimistic about the future of the news media.