I know you are not going to respond to this email… Why did you delete my comment… Why are you promoting that gangster… I don’t know if anyone will read this message till the end but I have a few suggestions… Why do you keep calling such and such politicians names…

These are just a few examples of audience letters I have encountered as a recipient of newsroom group emails. I never counted the exact number of responses, but they don’t seem to change much over the years.

If you work in journalism I am sure you have received similar emails or comments on your articles. But have you ever taken a minute to consider what they mean?

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Does your audience understand the way you do journalism?

The first instinct of some colleagues is to disregard such messages. They call them time-wasters.

Before coming to journalism I worked in digital marketing, as what you would now call a community manager. The most important rule at the company was to respond to every customer, even the angry ones using profanity. 

It was the CEO’s initiative and I welcomed it even as it drove me mad at times. Imagine talking to someone who is both a troll and a customer. But brands know well that even one unhappy customer can, given the right circumstances, raise hell for them, especially on social media.

Journalists tend not to care, at least in my experience (good for you if your colleagues value reader feedback). They know part of the audience will always be angry. For some publications that’s a modus operandi. It’s the way they work. It drives clicks – not especially valuable ones but enough to keep going.

Sure, it’s not a journalist’s job to seek compromise and understanding on both sides of an issue. Journalists look for the truth and report facts.

Whenever I hear a colleague is not willing to respond to a reader email I tell them our editor-in-chief and even the publishing house CEO reply to readers. Even if they are critical (although a minimum of politeness is needed). 

People involved in product development or mid-to-upper management tend to fall into a second group. They are more responsive, but they do not interact with readers (or see nasty comments) on a daily basis. Any email is, to them, a touchpoint with the audience.

Most of them understand how the customer relationship should work. They experience it every time they shop online from “customer obsessed companies” such as Amazon. 

There is also a minority (again, my experience) that gets very proactive even after reading just one piece of reader feedback.

To me all of this is a symptom of an organization, its values and relationship with readers, members, supporters or subscribers. The values of a media organization should be set from the top with an open ear towards suggestions from the newsroom and other parts of the company.

Also, those questions from the beginning might seem simple, stupid or “time-wasters”. But I believe they signal there is something inherently broken and needs repairing. I call it the “black box syndrome”. No, I do not mean the financial term, even though it might apply, in a way.

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How to solve the black box

When referring to black box, I do not mean the one you can find in airplanes. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, the black box is a system or process that uses information to produce a particular set of results, but that works in a way that is secret or difficult to understand. 

Read this again: secret or difficult to understand. Yes, how journalism is done and its outcomes are for many people difficult to understand.

I believe this is the first step in understanding the responses, comments, questions and replies from the beginning of this column: Journalists and media often act as their work is secretive and fail to recognize that the audience does not understand the processes (how you choose reporting topics, why do you call out certain behaviour and not other, what do you consider newsworthy).

I know, big words. Where are the facts to back this up?

In the beginning of 2021, the US media faced a reckoning – the controversial president Donald Trump is no longer, the Joe Biden administration is (thankfully) boring for audiences (several big news outlets have seen their new subscriptions or audiences to their websites plummet).

The Washington Post admitted it is planning to expand the newsroom to generate more coverage of race and identity issues as well as business and international news. Cameron Barr, The Post’s interim executive editor, said they will try to fill the Trump void “perhaps with more journalism”.

In 2019, Emily Goligoski, then a researcher with The Membership Puzzle Project, now an audience researcher at The Atlantic, was looking for answers to the question: what should organizations that rely on their members for their expertise and revenue do better?

She assembled nine responses (suggestions) from various media operations. Among them were these:

  • Make it someone’s full-time job to pay attention to members
  • Clearly explain how and when members can exercise their power
  • Show up on social, or: being responsive to criticism is a vital transparency mode
  • Be clear about members’ expectations of consultation
  • Poll your people

All of the above tells the story that newsrooms need to communicate more with their audiences and cannot ride “Trump waves” forever. A lasting relationship is built on trust, mutual understanding and open communication.

So, the next time your colleague asks why they should reply to a random reader email, start a conversation about how much your audience actually understands about how you do journalism.

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