The News Challenge: Informing and Engaging Audiences

The News Challenge: Informing and Engaging Audiences

Guest post from June 2014 Engage breakfast panelist Natalie (Talia) Jomini Stroud and colleague Katie Steiner. Talia and Katie are both with the Engaging News Project of the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life at The University of Texas at Austin.

Today, the news media face many challenges. Shrinking staff, increasing competition, and shifting audiences make the business of making the news more difficult.

Tensions facing the modern newsroom have come into sharp focus. On the one hand, the news media are dedicated to informing the public and connecting citizens to events that they cannot see for themselves. On the other hand, the news media are a business. They cannot exist without revenues.

In the midst of rapid changes in technology, news organizations are struggling to advance both their journalistic and business missions.

Despite these challenges, we do not think that the news media are a lost cause. In fact, we see the media’s current state as an opportunity. Are there more compelling ways to present news that might attract unengaged citizens? Are there ways to bridge partisan divides when presenting the news? Can the news help people to approach other views with the same charity that they display when approaching views with which they agree? And can all this be done while advancing the bottom line?

The Engaging News Project, a research-based unit that analyzes techniques for engaging news audiences in commercially-viable and democratically-beneficial ways, aims to address these questions. The project tests web-based strategies for informing audiences, promoting substantive discourse, and helping citizens to understand diverse views. Systematic testing provides valuable information about what works and what doesn’t. And by advancing both journalistic and business goals, the techniques we develop are designed with contemporary newsrooms in mind.

We’re not looking to completely overhaul the news. Rather, we want to build on organizations’ existing practices. By building on these existing practices, we hope to use research to re-envision how news is presented.

Some current practices we’ve already done research on include:

  • Buttons: “Like” has become our go-to term for how we respond to everything from news articles to comments from our closest friends. But what if, instead of “Like,” one could click “Respect?” Through our research, we discovered that readers were more likely to click on comments expressing different political views when they had a “Respect” button to use.
  • Comment Sections: What happens when journalists play a larger role in a news organization’s comment section? We worked with a local television news station to randomly vary whether or not a reporter engaged with site visitors in the comment section. We found that having a reporter interact with commenters can reduce incivility.
  • Polls and Quizzes: Many news websites have online polls that ask site visitors to express their opinions on matters of public import. Although these polls can be engaging, there are downsides. Specifically, some site visitors may believe that online poll results are accurate reflections of public opinion when, in fact, they are not. The worst-case scenario is that having these polls on news sites misinforms the public. We have developed a tool that allows news organizations to include quizzes instead of polls. Our research shows that quizzes can increase users’ knowledge and engage site visitors.

Our hope at the Engaging News Project is that our research will provide valuable information to newsrooms, as well as spark more innovation in how news can be presented in new, and engaging, formats.

Learn more about our research on our website,

NOTE: The opinions of Leadership Austin alumni, faculty members, and guest bloggers are their own, and do not represent an official position of the organization.