David Arkin's blog

Editors need to spend more time engaging with their online users

This is an example of comments readers made on a GateHouse website.
This is an example of comments readers made on a GateHouse website.

As an editor, how much of your time is taken up with answering phone calls, approving letters and handling foot traffic at your newspaper?

I imagine, if your newspaper is connected to the community it serves, the answer is a lot.

But how much time do you spend answering questions, concerns or compliments about your website? How often do you talk to your online readers? Do you chat with them in comments, on Facebook? Do you explain your approach with coverage and how they can share content? Or is that the digital editor’s job?

I am sure you can see what I am getting at here.

Even as the newspaper industry aggressively pushes toward a bright digital future, editors are consumed by the print product, even when it comes to whom they decide to communicate with. Sure, editors might answer questions from time to time about a problem on their website or mobile device, but editors aren’t talking with readers online the way they do in print.

And what’s so interesting about this is that the folks who are actually more active in using our products aren’t our print readers. It’s our online readers. The online readers are the ones who are commenting on our sites, uploading their classified ads, sharing their photos, sharing and emailing your stories and writing about their memories of a loved one who has died. That all happens more efficiently online and occurs at a much higher frequency online.

One of my colleagues recently put it this way when it comes to print vs. digital.

— Print readers: Read our paper, write us letters to the editor
— Online users: Comment on the site, submit an event, navigate our website, send us a photo.

While online users are reading our content, they are also doing a whole lot more. Through your different platforms (web, social media and mobile), they have way more content to experience and participate with than what’s in print. Our readers are users. They are using our content in a way print readers just never will be able to.

And that’s why it’s so important that top editors are engaged with these users and their experience online. I am not advocating for ditching print readers and not calling them back. But there has to be a shift where more of our attention goes to where our larger audience is. That audience needs to connect with the editor. Here are four ways editors could do that:

1. Look at the Top 5 most popular stories on your website and the content you post on Facebook and don’t be afraid to jump into the conversation. Maybe that’s to correct something, applaud a story or ask a user a question. You don’t have to do it every day, but once a week, it’s an easy way to talk with users.

2. Do a weekly video explaining a decision you made. Make it short, maybe 60 seconds, but use it as an opportunity to connect. Often editors only make announcements online for major new initiates, a change with your commenting platform or a redesign. But a weekly video would be a great way to explain to your online users why you covered something a certain way or how they could share their content for a specific call to action you are seeking.

3. Ask to be copied on any email that your online editor receives that is a complaint. This will give you visibility on your site’s issues and also could provide you an opportunity to message the user with a thank you or a follow-up question. Just being cc’d would show your interest in their issues and your site.

4. Run a live chat on your site or on social media inviting readers to ask questions. Come with some updates on things you are working on. Many of our newspapers hold monthly Reader Advisory Boards, but often those conversations surround the print product. Why not do something that is completely connected to your digital users.

The ideas above could be practiced not just by top editors but publishers and section editors like sports and opinion editors.

At GateHouse Media, our websites are managed by a corporate team and we are busy working on improvements to load time, user experience and have world-renowned designer Mario Garciaredesigning our websites, slated for early next year. While editors don’t control every area of site performance and user experience they are in complete control of engaging with readers and helping them, where they can, with problems they might experience. They also hold complete control over communicating about coverage, seeking their feedback and finding ways to engage them in conversation.

A shift has to happen with more and more of an editor’s time to digital. That includes coverage, planning and user engagement.

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