How can the Engaging News Project help journalism?

In this Net Worked guest post, Katie Steiner, an SPJ Digital member in Austin, Texas, looks at the role of the Engaging News Project and its work for journalism in the digital age.

The Engaging News Project at the University of Texas at Austin is working to help newsrooms in the new age of journalism. (Photo courtesy of Katie Steiner)

The Engaging News Project at the University of Texas at Austin is working to help newsrooms in the new age of journalism.
(Photo courtesy of Katie Steiner)

To say this is an interesting time in the news industry is an understatement. Incivility runs rampant in comment sections, leading a few newsrooms to remove comments all together. Some outlets are so driven by page views that they’ve traded in their democratic goals in favor of Kim Kardashian stories and puppy photo galleries. And overall, newsrooms are being asked to do more with fewer resources than ever before.

That is why the Engaging News Project launched. We’re a research group dedicated to helping newsrooms meet their business and journalistic goals. To do this, we test web-based strategies for informing audiences, promoting substantive discourse, and helping citizens to understand diverse views. At the same time, we analyze business outcomes, such as clicks and time on page.

One area of online engagement we have explored is online polls and quizzes. Polls are a popular way for news sites to engage with their visitors, but they have downsides. Specifically, some site visitors may believe that online poll results are accurate reflections of public opinion when, in fact, they are not. Further, the widespread use of entertainment-oriented polls may miss valuable opportunities to both entertain and educate.

Our research found that quizzes can be a positive alternative to polls, as they actually test readers’ knowledge while also keeping them on the page. To help make it simple for newsrooms to make quizzes for their sites, we have created a free online quiz tool. We invite you try out the tool by visiting this page of our website.

A hot topic in the news industry right now is comment sections, and what newsrooms should do with them. One possible solution we tested was to have journalists interact with commenters. Through our research, we found that civility improved when a reporter was present in the comment section.

When looking at comment sections, we noticed that many newsrooms use a “Like” button to allow readers to engage with the comments. But what do people do when they see a worthwhile comment that express a point of view with which they disagree? To remedy this, we created a “Respect” button. We found that people were more likely to click on comments expressing different political views when they had a “Respect” button to use, compare to when there was just a “Like.”

We’re fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with some fantastic journalists and news organizations for these projects – none of our research would be possible without their help. By partnering with newsrooms to test our strategies, we are able to get a better understanding of what works (and what doesn’t).

We’re always looking for new newsroom partnerships. At the very least, we would love to hear what you think we should be testing, or what you wish you could improve about your digital presence. We encourage you to contact us via our website.

Katie Steiner, an SPJ Digital member, is the Communication Associate for the Engaging News Project, based at the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life at the University of Texas at Austin. You can interact with the Project on Twitter here.

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