An interview with two audience engagement editors in Gannett’s “newsroom of the future”

Audience engagement editor is a new position being created amid Gannett’s nationwide newsroom restructuring. I talked to audience engagement editors at two Gannett newspapers to find out what engagement editors do, and what skills are needed to land this job in the new newsroom.

Audience engagement editor at Gannett and beyond

In 2014, Gannett began to implement its “newsroom of the future” reorganization strategy; under this new structure, there are 16 positions in the new newsroom and each employee at every Gannett media property is required to “reapply” for one of these positions; those whose skill set does not fit into any new position would be fired.

Among the new positions, the audience engagement editor is of particular interest to me. The reason is not just because of its novelty job description, it is also because how this job is appearing in other newsrooms, sometimes with slightly different job titles.

For instance, in August 2014, the New York Times added an audience development position to its masthead; the person hired was asked to “build a team devoted to using search, social and other strategies to draw more people to our news articles and editorials.”

In a recent development, in January 2015, the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University School of Journalism received a three-year grant from the Knight Foundation, and audience engagement is among the four key research areas being funded:

Audiences and Engagement will study the new relationship between the journalist and the audience, examining the impact and new demands that social media, participatory journalism, crowdsourcing and other developments, are creating in the field.

Before we look at audience engagement editors in Gannett “newsroom of the future,” here is the job description of Gannett audience engagement:

Plans and executes engagement opportunities to maximize community impact and story resonance in print, digital, community event and social media settings. Oversees content that highlights discussions and debates on important community issues. Should possess expertise in social media, marketing and events planning. Connects content with creative ways to generate community interaction both virtually and through events. May directly supervise the work of producers.

About the Gannett engagement editors interviewed

David Plazas is the lead engagement editor at The Tennessean, a Gannett media property serving Nashville and middle Tennessee. As described in the article announcing his appointment, David “will be a primary face of The Tennessean, leading community engagement efforts, writing editorials and connecting with and building audiences on all platforms.” David has a bachelor’s degree and a master’s in journalism, both from Northwestern University. He earned his MBA at FGCU in 2011.

Michael Klinski is the engagement editor of the Argus Leader, a Gannet media property serving Sioux Falls, South Dakota. In an articled titled “Newsroom puts greater focus on engagement,” Michael wrote,

For years, newspaper companies have been content with letting their work speak for itself. We never have been good at selling ourselves or embedding ourselves in the community. The idea is to change that perception and get to know you better.

I asked both David and Michael a few questions and I’m copying their responses below separately. The questions I asked were:

  • what are the everyday functions of this position?
  • what conventional and new skills needed?
  • how can journalism school prepare students for this job?

Responses from David Plazas

Everyday job functions

The Newsroom of the Future is about radically re-inventing the relationship we journalists have with our readers and viewers. We are taking responsibility for the success of our organizations, by understanding who our consumers are, what they consume, how they consume us (i.e., platforms) and how we can keep them coming back for more.

The ultimate goal is to elevate the quality of our journalism and also to ensure that it is irresistible to consumers, who will want to continue engaging with our work and our journalists. What’s new is that journalists are self-actualized, they are aware of how well their content does, are focused on creating solutions for the community, and are encouraged to share and promote their work.

Events and social media are critical in the work we are doing. Social media has to be more than broadcasting. It has to be about developing relationships and trust. Events, large and small, allow us to connect with consumers on particular issues or interests. Later this month The Tennessean will be hosting an event for The New Dylans, a recently reunited band that we covered daily digitally in December( Events also include events surrounding the Nashville mayoral race and citizens panels on national issues.

Conventional and new skills for the job

The conventional skills are the traditional news reporting, writing and editing skills. A nose for news, insatiable curiosity and desire to stand up for the community is, perhaps, another conventional skill. New skills include an understanding of marketing, which essentially is understanding our consumers, adjusting to changes in consumer behavior, research and finding creative ways to deliver our content to our current and potential consumers. We want people to read us, and we need to part of the effort to get our content into people’s hands. Data analysis is helpful, as long as context is understood.

Metrics is a part of our daily lives. In fact, at our daily 9:30 a.m. news meeting, we review page views, engagement and digital strategy as the first order of business. That discussion is led by one of our two audience analysts, who are responsible for understanding our performance, interpreting it and creating strategies for increase reach. A variety of metrics are used, mainly via Omniture, Chartbeat, Facebook analytics, Twitter analytics, among them.

How can J-schools prepare students

J-schools can help students by helping them gain expertise in demographic research and by learning how to act like consumers, understanding what platforms they use and how they use them. Marketing and some programming skills would be useful.

I went to J-school, so I’m supportive of its mission. Skills such as empathy, listening, and deep research were not learned in J-school; perhaps that’s a valuable life experience that we could bring to our professions. As an opinion engagement editor, I made a commitment to my community that I would listen, connect and absorb information before opining on any issue.

Responses from Michael Klinski

Everyday job functions

The engagement editor position is a brand new position in the newsroom. Although the title didn’t exist before, a lot of the components did. It varies from site to site I’m sure, but I have a spot on the editorial board and write editorials and approve letters.

Other parts are new. The engagement editor job is part marketing with a journalism spin. We are looking for how we can lead the conversation in the community and promote
the expertise of our reporters. So, for instance, when one of our reporters has a big project, how can we plan events around it? It might be a public forum featuring the reporter and the story’s sources.

There are a lot of little things, too, such as interactive poll questions, using storify to compile our audience’s conversations on Twitter and soliciting reader photos during storms or other big news stories. One of my projects now is working on simplifying that last part so reader’s engagement with us is easier.

My emphasis is on social media, and obviously we were doing that before. But another part of the position is to make sure we are doing the best job possible on those social media platforms and to track our reach.

Conventional and new skills for the job

As for conventional skills, a good news judgment, writing and reporting skills are important. New skills: Social media, basic HTML and coding are helpful, use of online story-telling tools such as Storify.

How can J-schools prepare students

J-schools should always be looking at new technology, social media programs and web tools and determining how they are being used by news websites. With engagement editor, an emphasis on marketing is also important.

I graduated college 12 years ago, when social media was in its extreme infancy. We had no education on those programs and couldn’t anticipate that they would be where they are now. The key is to adapt. Journalism programs need to be aggressive in keeping up with technology and social media trends.

News reporters need to get video training and work on the school’s TV station, as well. Video is now a part of everyone’s jobs and will only become more important.

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About Mu Lin

Dr. Mu Lin is a digital journalism professional and educator in New Jersey, United States. Dr. Lin manages an online marketing company. He also manages MulinBlog Online J-School (, a free online journalism training program, which offers courses such as Audio Slideshow Storytelling; Introduction to Social Media Marketing; Writing for the Web; Google Mapping for Communicators; Introduction to Data Visualization; Introduction to Web Metrics and Google Analytics.
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