You might know the American Press Institute for its deep research on a variety of issues in journalism, something we’ve done for years as a think tank based in the Washington, D.C., area.
Recently, though, we decided to study something a little different: people.
Here’s how it happened. While working on our ongoing accountability journalism project, we met journalists around the country whose work seemed particularly influential in their communities. They were engaging audiences, encouraging action and conversation, and writing stories with impact.
We were intrigued. We wanted to know: Why are some reporters and editors more effective than others? How does their work seem to have more resonance in their communities?
And most relevant here: How can you be one of them?
We decided to bring a group of those highly effective journalists to D.C. for two days, where we bombarded them with questions, surveys and group conversations. However, first we needed to come up with a methodology for selecting that group of journalists.
We turned to data from Metrics for News, a content analysis program created by API specifically for newsrooms. With more than a half-million pieces of content in our database created by newsrooms enrolled in Metrics for News, we were able to track the most engaging authors. We also examined the work of four newsrooms enrolled in the Knight-Temple Table Stakes project, a yearlong effort to advance the digital transformation of local newsrooms.
What were our criteria? We wanted journalists who:
- Focused on accountability journalism: Reporting on public officials and institutions of all types, and holding them responsible for their actions and statements.
- Routinely interacted with their audiences through social media and comments.
- Presented facts and told stories in impactful, nontraditional formats.
- Wrote with authority, context, understanding and compassion.
- Produced stories that had not only a large number of readers relative to their newsroom’s total audience but a high percentage of reader interactivity such as commenting and sharing on social media.
Through data, conversations, and an examination of their work and reader reaction, we identified 17 journalists from Florida to Washington state. While large news outlets were represented in the group — The Washington Post and the Miami Herald, for example — we also included a public radio station and a 12,000-circulation family-owned newspaper. You can find the full list of 17 journalists at the end of our report on americanpressinstitute.org.
That report, titled “7 characteristics of effective accountability journalists,” was published in December. Today we’ve got some suggestions for those who want to improve their effectiveness and “remake” themselves (or their staffers) into top accountability journalists.
Here are the seven characteristics, and some specific ways to help cultivate them.
Effective accountability journalists exhibit broad curiosity, eagerly adapt to new technologies and platforms
Our group of journalists clearly were “early adopters” in their newsrooms, ready to try new tools and unique ways to reach their audiences. Get more familiar with new technologies and platforms by:
- Seeking out in-person and online training. There are many free and reduced-cost opportunities.
- Attend top digital conferences like Online News Association and SXSW. Yes, they can be expensive, but look for scholarships and financial assistance. Check for live streams if you can’t attend in person. And be willing to share your knowledge with your co-workers after the conference.
- Stay up to date on technology and newsroom initiatives by subscribing to newsletters such as API’s “Need to Know” or the INN Nerds; and follow media technology posts like the Poynter Institute’s “Innovation” blog posts.
- Connect with other journalists in your region for informal meetups about new technologies. If there isn’t already such a meetup, start your own using Meetup.com or a similar service.
Effective accountability journalists think about multiple audiences
How well do you know all of your audiences? If you’re an education reporter, for instance, you think about several audiences: parents, taxpayers, students, teachers, school boards and elected officials. Learn more about your readers, viewers and listeners by:
- Studying the latest census data, especially the American Community Survey and the American FactFinder.
- Meeting with your advertising and marketing department for a summary of their audience data.
- Finding and following the top influencers in your audience segments on social media.
- Holding town hall meetings or other public events related to your community’s ongoing issues and your newsroom’s big projects. Make sure the event is designed around listening, not speeches from newsroom managers, so you can learn more about the specific interests of various audiences.
Effective accountability journalists work hard to create context for their audiences
Don’t assume the consumers of your work know or remember all the background material for ongoing stories. It may be all too familiar to you, but underlying facts and history should be provided with each story. Try these ideas:
- It may sound obvious, but don’t skip the hyperlinks. Use them liberally, and make sure they open in a new tab to keep your audience connected to your story.
- Use Genius or the non-profit Hypothes.is to annotate your stories.
- Create Vox-style “cards” as backgrounders. You can create your own using Explaain and other tools.
- Design an easy-to-use template for your content management system that can display previous articles, documents, videos and other multimedia.
Effective accountability journalists smartly balance their time on story choices and audience interactions
There’s no denying the fact that newsrooms continue to shrink with no end in sight, and that journalists who do keep their jobs are required to take on more responsibilities.
Prioritizing your work, tackling only the stories that really matter, while still focusing on your audiences are key skills.
- Use your newsroom’s metrics and analytics to help decide which topics and stories should move to the top of your list.
- Reconsider traditional coverage of every routine government meeting. Are you getting a reasonable return on investment by sitting through four hours of Robert’s Rules of Order in a nearly empty meeting room? If not, find your audience and spend time with them instead.
- Use technology to occasionally help with routine tasks such as posting to social media (like HootSuite or Buffer); scheduling meetings (Doodle or Calendly, for example); video conferencing instead of phoning, emailing or texting (try appear.in or join.me); and keeping up with like-minded groups (Slack or Workplace by Facebook might help).
- If you think you’re getting questionable assignments from editors, don’t hesitate to have a conversation about story choices and priorities. A good beat reporter has a better view of the landscape than anyone else in the newsroom. If you arm yourself with data and your own knowledge of your audience, you can make reasonable arguments about spending more time on some stories and less on others.
Effective accountability journalists spend considerable time building relationships with sources, readers
Good advice from our group of journalists included this: Establish relationships with readers and sources before you need them for stories.
- Create Twitter lists for groups that hold shared interests: tax reform, politics, residents in favor of that new shopping mall.
- Find out how the influential people in those groups keep in touch with each other —NextDoor? Facebook Groups? Slack? — and try to join.
- Every couple of months, park yourself in a popular local coffee shop for the morning and let people know you’re there for conversation and questions.
- Do you use “call-outs” on social media when you need input from readers? But first you need to establish a solid presence on Facebook or Twitter; otherwise, don’t expect much audience response.
Effective accountability journalists build connections and teamwork within their own newsrooms
One of the unexpected lessons we learned from our group of effective accountability journalists was their efforts at building relationships throughout their news organizations. They understand that expertise exists outside their group of reporters and editors.
- The traditional “wall” between the marketing/advertising department and the newsroom can be a barrier to full understanding of the business of journalism. Get to know people who work in other divisions of your news organization; soak up their knowledge about readers, viewers and listeners. Have coffee with them; invite them to news planning meetings.
- Who are the problem-solvers in your news organization? Learning exactly who can fix a problem — with a story, a reader, equipment, whatever is broken — is far more efficient than complaining and waiting for the right person to hear you.
- You’ve heard it before: Include your colleagues from social media and visual teams at the very start of a big project. Now, think about how including marketing, technology, circulation and other departments could enhance your project.
Effective accountability journalists find their own way and direct their own work
Good editors won’t shudder when they hear that the most effective reporters tend to make their own decisions and work independently. Journalists who hold the characteristics defined above don’t need constant direction — and that’s a good thing for newsroom managers who are struggling with staffing cuts and shrinking resources.
For those managers fortunate enough to write a job posting for new employees, standard phrases like “self-starter” and “adept at social media” don’t quite describe the most effective accountability journalists. Let’s end with some key words and phrases for your next job posting that can help identify the best candidates:
- Innovative and independent thinker.
- Won’t hesitate to jump into the technology sandbox.
- Proven use of social media to enhance beat and story coverage.
- Knows how to dive deep into newsroom metrics and community data.
- Uses innovative presentations to bring context to ongoing issues.
- Understands the business of news and how to leverage the skills of those outside the immediate newsroom.
- Great listener who knows how to find the people who should be listened to.
Learn more about effective accountability journalism by connecting with API’s 17 test group journalists on Twitter. Go to bit.ly/The17.
Jane Elizabeth is senior manager of the American Press Institute’s Accountability Journalism Program. She was previously a reporter and editor at the Pittsburgh Post Gazette and Washington Post. On Twitter: @JaneEliz