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ISSN: 1751-2786 (Print) 1751-2794 (Online) Journal homepage: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/rjop20
Audience Engagement, Reciprocity, and the
Pursuit of Community Connectedness in Public
Valerie Belair-Gagnon, Jacob L. Nelson & Seth C. Lewis
To cite this article: Valerie Belair-Gagnon, Jacob L. Nelson & Seth C. Lewis (2018): Audience
Engagement, Reciprocity, and the Pursuit of Community Connectedness in Public Media
Journalism, Journalism Practice
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/17512786.2018.1542975
Published online: 14 Nov 2018.
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Audience Engagement, Reciprocity, and the Pursuit of
Community Connectedness in Public Media Journalism
, Jacob L. Nelson
and Seth C. Lewis
Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, Minneapolis,
Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, Arizona State University, Phoenix, USA;
School of Journalism & Communication, University of Oregon, Eugene, USA
In light of the media industry’s growing focus on audience
engagement, this article explores how online and oﬄine forms of
engagement unfold within journalism, based on a comparative
case study of two American public media newsrooms. This study
addresses gaps in the literature by (1) examining what
engagement means for public media and (2) applying the
concept of reciprocal journalism to evaluate the nature of
reciprocity (direct, indirect, or sustained) in the give-and-take
between journalists and their communities. Drawing on direct
observation and in-depth interviews, this article shows how this
emerging focus on engagement is driven by public media
journalists’desire to make their relationship with the public more
enduring and mutually beneﬁcial. We ﬁnd that such journalists
privilege oﬄine modes of engagement (e.g., listening sessions and
partnerships with local organizations) in hopes of building trust
and strengthening ties with their community, more so than digital
modes of engagement (e.g., social media) that are more directly
tied to news publishing. Moreover, this case study reveals that
public media organizations, in and through their engagement
eﬀorts, are distinguishing between the communities they cover in
their reporting and the audiences they reach with their reporting.
Public media; engagement;
audience; qualitative method
“Audience engagement”refers broadly to exchanges between journalists and audiences.
Journalism scholars and practitioners often use the term to describe interactions between
news producers and the people they attempt to reach with their coverage. In the context
of digital media, scholars have deﬁned engagement as forms of participatory culture and
online interactivity that go beyond users’consumption of news. For example, journalists
draw on a variety of tools and platforms to interact with audiences, using things such
as online quizzes, commenting spaces, question-and-answer forums, social media, and
audience analytics (Ksiazek, Peer, and Lessard 2016; Usher 2016; Nelson 2018a). Engage-
ment also refers to in-person encounters coordinated by news organizations, such as
events, open houses, and face-to-face interactions (cf. Larson 2015). Engagement thus
involves audiences actively contributing to diﬀerent stages of the news production
© 2018 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group
CONTACT Valerie Belair-Gagnon email@example.com @journoscholar
process, sometimes in unrelated and unexpected ways. Batsell (2015) argued that news
organizations pursue audience engagement because of market pressures, with the
hopes that doing so will help journalists gain audience attention and, consequently,
revenue. Thus, for journalism as well as the creative and cultural industries more
broadly, engaging the audience is seen as an essential precondition of for-proﬁt media.
But what about nonproﬁt news media? How might their conception of and approach to
audience engagement change according to their public mission? For such membership-
oriented news organizations that claim a distinctly public-interest orientation, the quest
for audience attention may diﬀer to give higher priority to more personal, informal, and
higher-quality interactions with their audience, ones that are less oriented to attention
metrics, advertising or revenue generation. Public media thus might be more willing
and able to develop more mutually beneﬁcial interactions between audiences and
As such, this study asks: What does engagement look like in public media? In particular,
we consider the character of engagement as rendered in United States media markets,
ones that feature public broadcasters competing in the same ecosystem as commercially
driven journalism, as well as foundations and startups fostering engagement initiatives
that claim to sustain a future for established journalism (see Konieczna 2018). Under
such conditions, what vision for engagement is developed and enacted, and how might
that advance our understanding of engagement as both a scholarly construct and a prac-
tical form of media work at the intersection of producer and user?
Conceptual guidance for this question can be found in Lewis, Holton, and Coddington’s
(2014) notion of reciprocal journalism, or mutually beneﬁcial exchanges between journal-
ists and audiences, particularly in the context of publicly oriented journalism. In the ideal-
ized sense of reciprocal journalism, journalists act as community-builders who are
equipped to catalyze patterns of reciprocal exchange—directly with readers, indirectly
with community members, and repeatedly over time—that, in turn, may contribute to
greater trust, connectedness, and social capital with the public broadly and audiences
speciﬁcally (229). Accordingly, Lewis and colleagues suggest that reciprocal journalism
may be most evident in community or public media, but they do not oﬀer evidence to
support this assertion.
Thus, addressing gaps in related literatures on engagement and reciprocity, this study
examines the role of reciprocal journalism through audience engagement activities in two
American public media contexts. Speciﬁcally, it explores how public media journalists seek
to create meaningful engagement with audiences in and through news production. Using
a comparative approach that puts two case studies of similarly structured newsrooms into
conversation, we consider the public media journalism ideals of Minnesota Public Radio
(MPR News) and Milwaukee Public Radio (MilPR), where the authors conducted direct
observation and in-depth interviews with news producers and managers.
We ﬁnd that audience engagement unfolding within public media journalism is
focused on relationship-building, and is not necessarily connected to digital media or
even to news production. Instead, engagement is linked to a desire among public broad-
casters to build trust and strengthen ties with community members, as well as to sustain
their membership base and reach out to segments of the local public that have been
underrepresented by public media in a shifting information landscape. We also show
that while journalists within public media organizations emphasize a need to engage in
2V. BELAIR-GAGNON ET AL.
reciprocity with audiences, professional news judgment remains an important factor in
making sense of these interactions. These eﬀorts show that public media news organiz-
ations wrestle with giving away their professional autonomy as a trade-oﬀin developing
reciprocal relations with audiences. The result is a culture of connecting traditional journal-
ism with imagined public needs in digital and oﬄine spaces by “going old-school”—that
is, by seeking face-to-face interactions with news sources and the public.
Participation, Engagement, and Reciprocal Journalism
In the literature on participation in journalism, notions of who constitutes the audience
(e.g., Anderson 2011; Ahva 2017), what the audience is allowed (or encouraged) to do
(e.g., Robinson 2011; Lewis 2012), and how journalists negotiate interactions with the audi-
ence (e.g., Holton, Lewis, and Coddington 2016; Neilson 2018) are common themes. The
story of digital capabilities facilitating the potential for audience inclusion in news pro-
duction (Loosen and Schmidt 2012), particularly amid a decade-long diﬀusion of social
media that has reshaped the nature of media production and distribution (Hermida
2016), is one of the most well-developed lines of journalism studies research (for over-
views, see Peters and Witschge 2015; Wall 2015). In recent years, the notion of audience
engagement has become a convenient organizing term, in journalism as well as in the
media and cultural industries broadly (Napoli 2011; Jenkins, Ford, and Green 2013). Scho-
lars have used this concept of audience engagement to make sense of the various tools
and techniques connected with motivating and measuring forms of audience involvement
in media work—ranging from liking and sharing stories online to more purposefully con-
tributing time and content creation (Lawrence, Radcliﬀe, and Schmidt 2017; Neilson 2018).
However, perhaps because engagement is widely deployed as a buzzword and rarely
deﬁned or measured in detail, it has also been questioned as an elusive construct
(Nelson 2018a). And, as Lawrence and colleagues (2017) show in their study of engage-
ment initiatives by newsrooms in ﬁve countries, engagement may be idealized in demo-
cratic terms of involving users in the creation of news, but in practical terms it “primarily
means tweaking or repurposing content to gain greater audience reach, based on online
analytics”(16). Engagement in this sense has primarily been studied in the context of for-
proﬁt media, which, as with audience initiatives of decades past (Underwood 1995), tend
to approach engagement with a particular market orientation (Batsell 2015; cf. Ostertag
and Tuchman 2012; Hanusch 2017).
Moreover, research has yet to more clearly link the general notion of engagement with
the more particular notion of reciprocal journalism, described as “a way of imagining how
journalists might develop more mutually beneﬁcial relationships with audiences”(Lewis,
Holton, and Coddington 2014, 229; see also Coddington, Lewis, and Holton 2018). While
reciprocity can certainly be of the negative variety (e.g., revenge-seeking), positive recipro-
city, or the sharing of gifts, favors, or information for mutual well-being, has long been
recognized as a necessary ingredient the formation and perpetuation of community,
trust, and social capital (Gouldner 1960; Putnam 2000). Extending and applying sociologi-
cal and social-psychological theories of reciprocity to journalism, Lewis, Holton, and Cod-
dington (2014) hypothesized that reciprocal forms of journalism could be of three
overlapping types: direct exchanges between journalists and audiences (e.g., email, face-
JOURNALISM PRACTICE 3
to-face, one-to-one social media conversation); indirect exchanges that are more general-
ized, one-to-many, intended for community beneﬁt, and encouraging of future beneﬁt-
sharing (e.g., “pay it forward”forms of goodwill); and sustained exchanges that have an
enduring dimension, building relationships over time and laying the groundwork for
Thus far, research has found empirical support for the reciprocal journalism hypothesis:
that if journalists will more deliberately seek to develop mutually beneﬁcial relationships
with audiences, members of the public will reciprocate more positively (Borger, van Hoof,
and Sanders 2016; Harte, Williams, and Turner 2017; Reader 2018)—though journalists are
not necessarily so inclined (Groshek and Tandoc 2017; Russell 2017). However, there are
several issues in research on reciprocal journalism that may be addressed with this
study. First, the literature has focused mostly on digital interactions. Given that reciprocal
journalism may be online or oﬄine—facilitated by technologies but neither limited to nor
created by them (Lewis, Holton, and Coddington 2014)—research is only beginning to
determine how reciprocal journalism might be initiated and maintained face-to-face
(Harte, Williams, and Turner 2017). Second, reciprocal journalism is presumed to be
more evident in such settings because community media are presumed to have a
closer-to-the-ground understanding of (and even personal familiarity with) their audiences
(Lewis, Holton, and Coddington 2014). Research is beginning to oﬀer support for this
notion (Harte, Williams, and Turner 2017). But, with the exception of Reader (2018), the
context of public media and their public orientation have yet to be explored fully as
environments in which a reciprocal approach to audience engagement may or may not
be present. In all, there remains much to learn about the community-building potential
of reciprocal journalism.
Public Media and their Relationships with Audiences
Public broadcasting was established in the United Kingdom in the early 1920s. It became
known as the Reithian
model, and was established on principles of content quality, inde-
pendence from the state and market, impartiality in news production, non-commercialism,
serving national culture, minority interests, language and identity, as well as promoting
universality (Belair-Gagnon 2013,2015). This public media approach looks slightly
diﬀerent in the U.S. media context, and not merely because of the American news indus-
try’s commercial orientation (Usher, Riley, and Porter 2012, 32). In contrast to their counter-
parts in other countries, U.S. public media news organizations generate most of their
funding from members’dues and programming fees, with increasingly little federal gov-
ernment support. The operational logic of these news organizations is to engage their
designated community and its constitutive members in meaningful ways (Stavitsky and
Huntsberger 2010), similarly to community journalism that relies on connectedness
(with people within the local) and embeddedness (with local) (Lewis, Holton, and Codding-
ton 2014, 232).
Globally in recent decades, public media broadcasters have developed both digital and
oﬄine engagement practices to meet the needs of audiences and a wider public
(Lowe 2010). In a study of strategy documents published between 2002 and 2004 by
the British BBC, Norwegian NRK, Swedish SVT, and American PBS, Enli (2008)
4V. BELAIR-GAGNON ET AL.
participation is included in the broadcasters’self-legitimating rhetoric: the institutions seem to
have found a powerful rhetorical tool in the coupling of the classic ideal of serving the public
as active citizens, and prospects of a digital, convergent media environment. (116)
In this sense, Enli argued, “[t]he positive connotations of ‘participation’, in contrast to
‘passive viewing’, are employed rhetorically to renew the appeal of public service broad-
casting”(Ibid). In the decade since those early efforts at multi-platform participation, the
broad diffusion of social media—and its role as a pivotal platform for news distribution
and discovery (Hermida 2016)—has accelerated both the opportunities for and challenges
of audience engagement on the part of public service providers, as with media organiz-
ations generally. While social media have facilitated greater forms of journalist–audience
interaction, those interactions—for most journalists, most of the time—have proven com-
plicated and even counterproductive amid the growing degree of harassment and hosti-
lity expressed online (Nelson 2018b). Nevertheless, recent research on European public
service media suggests that engagement via social media is a key priority—even if such
engagement is less about actual audience participation in news production and more
about driving trafﬁc to one’s website or otherwise reaching younger and hard-to-reach
audiences with content natively created for social platforms (Sehl, Cornia, and Nielsen
2018). Similar practices have been noted in the U.S., Australia, and elsewhere (cf.
Benson, Powers, and Neff 2017). Scholars have shown how these practices can be inﬂu-
enced as much by “the incentives created by platform companies and by social media
teams imitating what they see as best practices”(Sehl et al. 2018, 31) as by institutional
and organizational forces, such as normative notions about news judgment (Ferrucci
2017). As with research on audience engagement in for-proﬁt media, research in the non-
proﬁt realm has shown how engagement may be the result of organizationally bounded
normative beliefs, values, and structures (e.g., Konieczna and Powers 2017). Or, as in
Usher’s(2013) study of Al Jazeera English, a lack of clear organizational incentives and
obvious norms may signiﬁcantly shape how journalists approach audience dimensions
such as digital metrics.
Nevertheless, in the literature, the overall question of audience engagement, particu-
larly as characterized in the social media era (Lawrence, Radcliﬀe, and Schmidt 2017;
Nelson 2018a), has carried with it an implicit orientation toward for-proﬁt media.
Less clear is what engagement looks like from the perspective of public media in
light of their deliberately public orientation. More to the point, the literature has yet
to clarify how public service journalists perceive their audience relative to the larger
public—and whether such distinctions, if any, might play a part in the strategies under-
taken to reach certain groups of people in certain ways. Such an approach connects
with a broader interest in digital media research to understand the “imagined audi-
ence”(Marwick and boyd 2011; Litt and Hargittai 2016; Kim, Lewis, and Watson
2018), deﬁned as “the mental conceptualization of the people with whom we are
communicating”(Litt 2012, 331). How do journalists develop such an image of
their audience, and what kind of practical and normative implications does that
In all, the potential for more engaged, reciprocal relationships between audiences and
journalists in public media, including but not limited to digital interaction, leads us to pose
the following two research questions: (1) What digital and oﬄine modes of community-
building do public news organizations use to engage with their audiences? And (2)
JOURNALISM PRACTICE 5
what do these modes of engagement reveal about the role of reciprocity within public
This article uses direct observation of news production, including editorial meetings, as
well as 26 interviews, 16 at MPR News and 10 at MilPR (see Sample of Informants in
Table 1). These two public media organizations are generally representative of public
media journalism in major metropolitan areas in the U.S. They also speak to the broader
set of challenges facing member-supported public broadcasting.
During ﬁeldwork, the ﬁrst and second authors asked what motivated the producers,
reporters, and on-air talent to pursue audience engagement; how they conceptualized
and evaluated engagement; what they expected of engagement; and how they saw
engagement playing into the organization’s broader goals. The ﬁrst and second authors
also asked these journalists to describe their audiences as well as their own relationships
with them. All interviews have been anonymized. In each case, we had full cooperation
from the management of the public media and access to the newsroom, meetings, and
documents. Because data collection included observation in addition to in-depth inter-
views, the authors were able to conﬁdently rule out the inﬂuence of social desirability
eﬀects from their ﬁndings.
Many newsroom ethnographers have used multiple sites for comparative studies in the
past (e.g., Gans 1979; Anderson 2013; Petre 2015). Some of these studies involved two or
more researchers who perhaps collected data from the same site at diﬀerent periods of
time, or from diﬀerent sites at the same time (see, e.g., Tamelin and Broersma 2013;
Table 1. Sample of informants.
Code Job title Gender News organization
J1 Editor Female Minnesota Public Radio News
J2 Editor Female Minnesota Public Radio News
J3 Editor Male Minnesota Public Radio News
J4 Digital Producer Female Minnesota Public Radio News
J5 Producer Male Minnesota Public Radio News
J6 Editor Male Minnesota Public Radio News
J7 Editor Male Minnesota Public Radio News
J8 (email exchange) Editor Male Minnesota Public Radio News
J9 (email exchange) Editor Male Minnesota Public Radio News
J10 Fellow Male Minnesota Public Radio News
J11 Digital Manager Female Minnesota Public Radio News
J12 Manager Female Minnesota Public Radio News
J13 Director Female Minnesota Public Radio News
J14 Digital Editor Male Minnesota Public Radio News
J15 Editor Female Minnesota Public Radio News
J16 Journalist Female Minnesota Public Radio News
J17 General Manager Male Milwaukee Public Radio
J18 Journalist Female Milwaukee Public Radio
J19 Managing Editor Female Milwaukee Public Radio
J20 News Director Female Milwaukee Public Radio
J21 Marketing Specialist Female Milwaukee Public Radio
J22 Journalist Female Milwaukee Public Radio
J23 Journalist Female Milwaukee Public Radio
J24 Journalist Female Milwaukee Public Radio
J25 Director, Corporate Sponsorship Sales Female Milwaukee Public Radio
J26 Corporate Sponsorship Sales Representative Female Milwaukee Public Radio
6V. BELAIR-GAGNON ET AL.
Usher 2016; Ferrucci et al. 2017). George Marcus and Doug Holmes refer to these types of
studies as “para-ethnography,”which they deﬁne as a collaboration between researchers
or “other sorts of experts with shared, discovered, and negotiated critical sensibilities”in
the research design, observation and analysis processes (2008, 136). The ﬁrst and
second authors adopted this collaborative, para-ethnographic approach in their
ﬁeldwork. Although the authors collected data on their own from each of the two sites,
they both drew on the same questions for their interviews and pursued the same oppor-
tunities for newsroom observations (e.g., editorial meetings). Furthermore, taking a cue
from Ferrucci et al. (2017), the authors concluded the data collection process when data
One advantage of this para-ethnographic approach to multiple site research is that it
allowed the researchers to draw comparisons between the journalists within each news-
room to better understand how the practices and assumptions they observed diﬀered or
overlapped. The process by which this comparison was pursued involved the ﬁrst and
second authors reﬂexively going through their own and the other’s interviews and obser-
vational ﬁeld notes, and then discussing their thoughts in an attempt to corroborate the
validity of their research ﬁndings. The authors then developed these initial ﬁndings into
thematic codes based on the research questions and the concept of reciprocity, which
allowed for an open exploration of reciprocity in engagement from the perspective of
media workers (Fereday and Muir-Cochrane 2006; Saldana 2015).
In other words, the authors used both data-driven codes that captured the richness of a
phenomenon (i.e., online and oﬄine reciprocal engagement) (Boyatzis 1998) and deduc-
tive theory-driven codes (Crabtree and Miller 1999) in an iterative and reﬂexive process
(Fereday and Muir-Cochrane 2006). Deductive theory-driven codes are an attempt at cap-
turing interviewees’understandings about the way things should be, or the expectations
and assumptions that underlie attitudes and presumably shape behavior. In short, the
authors involved in the data collection consistently considered how journalists valued
certain types of engagement over others and why. The authors then clustered the value
themes that emerged under succinct phrases that expressed their meaning.
In May 2017, the ﬁrst author spent one week assessing audience engagement at the MPR
News newsroom located in St. Paul, Minnesota. Founded in 1967, MPR News is part of
American Public Media Group, a nonproﬁt 501(c)(3) company. MPR News has a radio
channel and a website, mpr.org. Its content is available on multiple platforms, including
Google Newsstand, iTunes, and NPR One. MPR News has 75 employees dedicated to
local news production, which is the focus of this study.
In October 2017, the second author spent a week gathering data from MilPR, the
ﬂagship National Public Radio station in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The station includes 31
employees spread throughout the seventh ﬂoor of the Chase Tower in downtown Milwau-
kee. MilPR broadcasts locally produced news and music, as well as national and inter-
national programming from NPR, APM, and BBC. Like MPR, MilPR’s content is available
on its radio channel and on its website, wuwm.com. MilPR’s original content includes pro-
grams such as its local news magazine program Lake Eﬀect and the music program It’s
Alright Ma, It’s Only Music.
JOURNALISM PRACTICE 7
This section discusses the digital and oﬄine modes of audience engagement pursued by
public media news organizations, and explores what these approaches reveal about the
role of reciprocity in public media news production. The ﬁrst part focuses on the digital
means of audience engagement these news organizations are deploying, and the
second focuses on oﬄine eﬀorts. The section concludes by describing how
journalists at the two organizations value oﬄine audience engagement over digital, and
explores the implications of this distinction for their relationship with and expectations
of the public.
Digital Forms of Audience Engagement
Digital audience engagement plays an important role within both MPR News and MilPR’s
public media mission, their spatial organization, and their employees’daily journalistic
practices. This engagement is baked into the news production processes and the physical
structures of each newsroom. Journalists at both news organizations described digital
approaches to audience engagement that included interactions on social media platforms
(e.g., Twitter feeds, Facebook Live, Snapchat moments) in addition to some means that are
slightly less common. For instance, both news organizations used the services and plat-
form provided by the audience engagement company Hearken to solicit questions from
their audiences about what they would like to see covered within their communities. Hear-
ken’soﬀerings appeal to news organizations that believe their audiences would like to
have a larger role in the news production process (Nelson 2018a), a philosophy that has
been embraced by those within both MPR and MilPR. MPR also invited its audience to con-
tribute information through other crowdsourcing initiatives, such as the Public Insight
Network (PIN), which encourages users to share their expertise with journalists. The posi-
tioning of these digital engagement practices in the news production process speaks to a
general assumption within each newsroom that “quality”journalism stems from explicit
attempts by journalists to build audience trust and harness information and insights
directly from the public.
During interviews, journalists explained that they utilized digital forms of audience
engagement for reasons that included informing the public, attracting public attention,
and seeking input throughout the news gathering process. For example, one journalist
at MPR described how the news organization’s interactives (e.g., a quiz about the U.S.
Civil War) could attract audience attention to topics they might otherwise be uninterested
in: “It all kind of comes back to engaging [audiences] and keeping them on our website, so
that they can look at other content on our website”(J4). Similarly, at MilPR, a journalist who
reported on education explained that digital interactions helped maintain daily communi-
cation with groups of locally engaged publics: “On a daily basis I’m tweeting with [parents],
or sharing [news] with them, or they are sharing it out and people are tweeting back at me.
That is the most I do in terms of interacting with [online] audience”(J22).
These interactions are examples of what Lewis et al. refer to as direct reciprocity—the
sense of connectedness best achieved “through unilateral, or non-negotiated, forms of
reciprocal exchanges, as individuals give without expecting anything in return but none-
theless are likely to receive something of value in return”(Lewis, Holton, and Coddington
8V. BELAIR-GAGNON ET AL.
2014, 22). For example, direct reciprocity occurs when journalists reply to community
members on Twitter or repost their comments so that they become part of a larger
conversation. It is closely related to the most obvious, tangible goals driving the news
production process: informing their audience and supporting their organization.
Describing direct reciprocity via Twitter, an MPR News journalist said: “It can be a
source of information for what is going on in the community. I remember when there
was a tornado …we were ﬁnding out about that just by watching Twitter.”Another jour-
nalist working at the same organization echoed this sentiment while describing the appeal
of Facebook Live:
It is impromptu, it is unscripted, it is just the update in the ﬁeld. And that is good too, when-
ever we can build that into our reporting process, it is a nice opportunity sometimes for
engagement, because we can say, “Hey, this is what stood out for me about this event that
I covered, what questions do you have about it?”And maybe that will inform how their
report is shaped. So you get this opportunity to bring the audience along with you,
through that reporting process. (J3)
As this quote indicates, these attempts at audience engagement are examples of direct
reciprocity for two reasons. First, they are obvious and deliberate pursuits of connected-
ness with the community these journalists are attempting to cover. Second, there are
no expectations of anything in return. Rather, journalists engage in these online conversa-
tions with the hope that they beneﬁt their readers and perhaps improve the quality of
Other examples of direct reciprocity in digital interactions included MPR’s use of the
Public Insight Network (PIN) and MilPR’s use of the Hearken platform. Hearken, which pro-
vides tools for facilitating back-and-forth between journalists and users online, was MilPR’s
most obvious attempt at direct reciprocity because it was the most explicit way that its
journalists sought to learn what their audiences wanted from the news. Just before
data collection began, MilPR expanded its use of Hearken to encompass all of its original
programming. Describing the appeal of Hearken, one of MilPR’s journalists expressed that,
before having [the platform] in the newsroom, we had no direct way for people to suggest
their ideas to us. Some people would look online and ﬁnd our email or our listener
comment line, but we had very little feedback in terms of what stories people wanted to
For MilPR, Hearken was seen not only as a way to pursue direct reciprocity with audience
members who had suggested questions to MilPR, but also as a mechanism for reaching
other audiences as well. As one MilPR journalist explained, “When you’re including a ques-
tion-asker who cares about it and they’re explaining why they care about it, I think that
kind of helps maybe the listener realize, ‘Oh, yeah, I care about that same thing, too’” (J19).
What appeared to make the use of Hearken an example of direct reciprocity rather than
just another mechanism for journalists to transact something from their audiences (in this
case, story ideas instead of or in addition to money) was the general attitude with which
the people in MilPR’s newsroom approached it. These journalists saw the use of Hearken
less as a way to get something from audiences and more as a much-needed way to give
audiences a voice in the journalistic conversation. This spoke to a larger theme that
became evident through the interviews, which was that public media journalists increas-
ingly see themselves as moving away from the more traditional model of news production
JOURNALISM PRACTICE 9
as a lecture to a model with a much higher emphasis on conversation. As one MilPR repor-
ter explained, “It is a shift in what the goal is …It is less about telling stories …I feel really
concerned with just listening to people. I feel like that’s my main job. The actual storytell-
ing part is really secondary to that”(J18).
Perhaps because of this increasing focus on ﬁnding opportunities simply to listen to
their audiences, many of the journalists interviewed explained how the most signiﬁcant
means of digital audience engagement were not explicitly tied to the production of a
news story. For instance, J13 said that they used the PIN so that MPR News could ﬁnd
people who could describe abuses within Minnesota’s prison system. According to J13,
MPR News did not begin by explicitly seeking out sources for this particular story.
Instead, the news organization took a more open-ended approach. The engagement
editor tasked with investigating simply asked members of the community who had
signed up with PIN, “What do you know of prison life?”The journalist tapped a variety
of resources and collected about 50 responses, many of which covered elements of
prison life that reporters at ﬁrst had not thought to examine.
When you think about what do you know of prison life, that could run the gamut of anything.
By taking that broader approach where you’re not looking for validation or a story idea, or
you’re not looking for just one person to quote in a story yielded some really interesting
leads that didn’t necessarily have to do with what the reporter was originally seeking …It
wasn’t high tech. It was a paper thing where people told their stories, and then they gave
them back to the reporter who entered them back into a database. The idea was the approach
mattered more than the tools that you use to do it. Out of that came a much diﬀerent story,
because there was a critical mass of people saying somewhat the same thing. (J13)
The resulting story received an award from the Society of Professional Journalists and
ultimately led to state prison reforms. It also increased the prominence of PIN, demonstrat-
ing one way that sustained reciprocity could become self-perpetuating. As J13 explained,
“Now, all those people are in PIN that you could ask other questions of when they get out
of prison, they’re there to talk about other aspects of life that don’t have anything to do
with crime or corrections.”In short, although this approach to news production yielded
beneﬁts associated with a traditional perspective of journalism’s goals (e.g., award-
winning stories, a larger database of sources), it originated from a wholly diﬀerent set
of values of what public media journalism should aspire to accomplish —namely to
improve the relationship between news providers and their community.
Oﬄine Forms of Audience Engagement
While online tools such as Hearken, PIN, and social media platforms provide digital means
of pursuing audience engagement (by allowing journalists to converse with or solicit ques-
tions from their audiences), journalists at both organizations noted a variety of ways that
they engage in oﬄine community-building as well. Oﬄine forms of community-building
included open houses for members, radio shows in the local communities (e.g., at the Min-
nesota State Fair, or the Milwaukee’sLake Eﬀect program broadcasting from communities
rather than from the studio), and partnerships with community organizations (e.g., MilPR’s
partnership with community groups for its series covering people aﬀected by gun vio-
lence, and MPR News opening an oﬃce in North Minneapolis). Journalists at both news
organizations appeared to perceive of oﬄine modes of community-building as the
10 V. BELAIR-GAGNON ET AL.
ultimate form of audience engagement. While they certainly valued digital tools as useful
for maintaining connections with audiences as they go about their daily news routines,
journalists nevertheless emphasized oﬄine interactions when they talked about establish-
ing what they perceived as truly meaningful connections between themselves, their listen-
ers, and the public more broadly.
In fact, some journalists explicitly compared digital forms of audience engagement
unfavorably in relation to oﬄine forms. One MilPR reporter suggested that online com-
munication was less reciprocal than oﬄine interactions. She said that the reporting she
does in the community provides the most important opportunity for doing more mean-
ingful engagement. Online communication, on the other hand, tends to feel less
genuine and more promotional:
We’ve sent out an email to our listeners, we’ve done a Facebook post, that kind of stuﬀ, but
we’re talking more about, ‘Let’s go to this juice bar and hang out for a couple hours and see
what people come through and see if they have questions.’We’re thinking [about] what
spaces we can actually go to [to] spend time there. (J19)
Consequently, although digital means of direct reciprocity played an important role in
both newsrooms, what seemed even more signiﬁcant to the journalists in our sample were
the oﬄine attempts at direct reciprocity. These attempts, which primarily included in-
person events and listening sessions, were examples of direct reciprocity because of the
eﬀort extended to make them happen and the expectations among the journalists orga-
nizing them for what they might yield. Even though journalists needed to invest much
time and energy to organize these oﬄine attempts at engagement, they appeared com-
pletely comfortable with the idea that these initiatives would not result in any sort of tra-
ditional marker of organizational success (e.g., more revenue in the form of subscribers or
donations). At some point, the journalists explained, they might go back and produce a
story about these events or pursue stories based on what they learned at them, but
that would be a bonus rather than the primary aim. As a MilPR journalist described,
these live events were intended instead to simply bring groups of people together to
“pick their brains,”and “for us to have people …come tell us what it is that we are
This is not to say that these attempts at direct reciprocity are made without any hope
for newsroom rewards. Journalists at both news organizations saw direct reciprocity as a
solution to two of journalism’s pressing problems: declines in trust and revenue. By pursu-
ing direct reciprocity oﬄine via listening sessions, as well as online via PIN and Hearken,
the journalists at MPR and MilPR sought to increase audience trust, which they hoped
would lead to more revenue in the form of more memberships and/or advertising (spon-
sorships). That journalists deploy direct reciprocity as a means of solving these problems
speaks to a belief that many of them share: taking a more collaborative and communica-
tive approach to news production improves the quality of the news they produce, which in
turn increases the likelihood that it will be appreciated by the public they hope to reach.
In addition to pursuing oﬄine audience engagement in ways they hoped would lead to
direct reciprocity, both newsrooms used similar engagement approaches in hopes of
achieving indirect reciprocity as well. These indirect forms of reciprocity—when the
beneﬁciary “returns the favor not to the giver, but to another member of the social
network”(Lewis, Holton, and Coddington 2014, 234)—were presented as instances
JOURNALISM PRACTICE 11
where journalists were trying to “make a diﬀerence”in the community without any sense
of reporting a story (J16). Like the “listening sessions,”these activities often involved low-
tech approaches—namely, a number of journalists in a room conversing with community
members. The distinction between these events and those described previously are that
these were intended to include community members who were understood not to be
regular audience members of these two news organizations. They are also explicitly
intended to be community-building exercises, meaning that the journalists would fore-
close ahead of time the possibility of using what they learned for future reporting. For
example, with the Public Insight Network (PIN), MPR News organized an event with
women from various backgrounds to learn from each other about “things that they had
personally done to better understand their ﬁnancial situation and feel more secure, and
then also share some of their anxieties or struggles that they had had”(J13). The
manager said “[we] did not put [these conversations] on the radio [or] website. It was a
safe space for people to share”(J13). For the journalists, the manager added, “it reinforces
this idea of making it our mission to identify and meet information needs, but not necess-
arily making it our mission just to create a story and get the most clicks on it”(J13).
MilPR journalists described how these attempts at indirect reciprocity played into how
they evaluated the success of their work. During interviews and meetings, it was clear that
these journalists were evaluating the impact of their work less by the consequences of the
stories they produced than by the consequences of the connections they built and main-
tained with their community. By listening to underreported community members in a
more compassionate way, journalists felt that they were making a positive impact in
the community —even if that didn’t necessarily mean a positive impact on their
bottom line, or on their speciﬁc audience. Another reporter at MilPR made a similar obser-
vation when she discussed how she and her colleagues sometimes used these attempts at
oﬄine audience engagement to help people who may not be the audience for the journal-
ism they eventually produce. She mentioned one person who had noticeably beneﬁtted
from the station’s series of workshops intended to help people who were aﬀected by
gun violence, in part by giving them the opportunity to share their stories with other
By going through that process, it almost helped her heal a little bit and realize that this was not
something she had to keep inside and keep to herself. The outpouring from the audience, sup-
porting her, helped her open up. It was deﬁnitely, for me …What stood out from that was how
you’re impacting the people who are actually in the stories rather than the people who are
hearing the stories. (J19)
This speaks to a development that is unfolding among public media journalists pursu-
ing indirect reciprocity: the growing awareness that the people they are reporting on are
not necessarily the audiences they are reporting for.
Valuing One Form of Engagement Over the Other
Taken together, our observations and interviews indicate that journalists within public
media are explicitly trying to build more reciprocal relationships with their communities
(the public at large), even at the expense of their audience members (those reading, listen-
ing, clicking, etc.). In an oﬄine form of sustained reciprocity, similar to the digital variety,
12 V. BELAIR-GAGNON ET AL.
examples are presented as unique and show how these are focused on maintaining trust
with the community in the long term rather than on producing news in the short term. For
example, in 2017, MPR News opened an oﬃce in North Minneapolis as part of a larger
eﬀort to foster trust with communities that the organization considers under-reported
or reported narrowly. At that time, a journalist whose salary was funded by a nonproﬁt
foundation and who spent two days a week in that oﬃce said:
I am gonna go talk to people. It’s very on the ground, it is on-the-ground type engagement for
me, that is the way I see it. Going in, asking people, ‘What is the most important story? What
should the rest of Minnesota know about the community that you’re living in?’Just being a
listener, really. I go out, talk to people, listen, if I get a story idea, I pass them on. I give it to
someone else and, ultimately, somebody else is going to make that decision. (J10)
In the newsroom, this project was pitched as a way of “getting to know the community,”
“reaching a diverse audience,”and “listening.”For these newsworkers, “journalism grows
out of engagement.”Similarly, in Milwaukee, journalists sought to foster trust within
pockets of the community that they feel had been left out. As J20 put it, we are,
just making sure that we are telling stories that are important for the community to hear and
that are accurate and aren’t just cooked up based on things that we think are important, but
we’re actually hearing what people have to say in the community.
Our results show how two public media organizations practiced and valued digital and
oﬄine forms of audience engagement. We found that both news organizations used
digital forms of audience engagement to inform the public, attract audience attention,
and seek input in news production process—all processes that relate more to direct reci-
procity. These digital forms of engagement were central to both newsrooms. For instance,
not only did editorial employees describe using social media to follow and converse with
audience members, but at MPR News the digital team is located in the middle of the news-
room, reﬂecting their centrality to the organization. Our results also revealed that these
same media workers placed more value in oﬄine forms of audience engagement (e.g.,
open houses and community partnerships) than they did in digital forms. These oﬄine var-
ieties of audience engagement seemed designed to pursue sustained reciprocity, reﬂect-
ing the organizations’desire to build trust with their audiences and the public on a long-
There are a number of important implications that stem from these ﬁndings. First, these
results suggest that many within journalism have implicitly determined that the early
promise of the internet to grant everyone a voice and make public connection easier
has not exactly been fulﬁlled—a theme that is evident in many contemporary accounts
of social media and society (e.g., Belair-Gagnon 2015; Tufekci 2017). Instead, at a
moment when audiences’trust in journalism is at a low, public media appear to be
under the impression that in-person, face-to-face conversations oﬀer the likeliest means
of overcoming a crisis of conﬁdence. The journalists we spoke with who advocated for
and described the beneﬁts of live events within their communities suggested that what
made these initiatives “successful”was that they gave community members the opportu-
nity to share their own stories with journalists and gain a larger sense of agency in their
JOURNALISM PRACTICE 13
own narratives. Those we spoke with also indicated that these events cultivated a more
genuine connection between journalists and the public than was otherwise possible
through online audience engagement. In short, while online engagement is helpful and
often utilized, journalists we interviewed perceived oﬄine engagement as more meaning-
ful. Or, to borrow language used by others who have written about audience engagement,
online engagement was perceived as “transactional,”whereas oﬄine engagement was
perceived as “relational”(DeVigal 2017).
More importantly, these ﬁndings reveal that news organizations, at least in local public
media, are increasingly making explicit distinctions between the communities they cover
in their reporting and the audiences they reach with their reporting. This is a new and impor-
tant discovery for the broader study of the “imagined audience”concept (Litt 2012), with
particular meanings for how journalists think about and act toward their envisioned audi-
ence (cf. Coddington, Lewis, and Holton 2018). As our results show, one of the reasons that
the journalists we observed valued oﬄine engagement more than online engagement is
that they felt that oﬄine approaches allowed for more opportunities to reach people who
were not already public media audience members. Complicating this distinction is the fact
that these same journalists did not feel compelled to use these oﬄine engagement tech-
niques as a means of producing news stories. For instance, the listening sessions described
by the journalists at MilPR explicitly were not pursued with the intention of leading to any
sort of publishable content. This suggests that journalists within locally oriented public
media organizations see themselves as accountable not just to the audiences that
support them, but also to the community members they feel have been previously mar-
ginalized by more traditional means of news production. This dual accountability leads
to goals that, while not mutually exclusive, are equally daunting: produce news for one
segment of the public while earning the trust of another.
Reciprocity in Public Media Journalism
To interpret this give-and-take between journalists and their communities, we drew on the
concept of reciprocity within journalism, focusing on the three types outlined by Lewis,
Holton, and Coddington (2014): direct, indirect, and sustained. This framework revealed
that these journalists were focused more on engaging in sustained reciprocity, which
led them to favor oﬄine interactions with audiences and the public. They believed that
these interactions would help them to develop rich, long-term interactions, particularly
with local and diverse communities they may not be presently reaching online or on
the radio. In all, there was a willingness to focus on improving public trust in the long
run, even if journalists were aware that such activities might not lead to material
beneﬁts—e.g., through greater numbers of donating members—the way that shorter-
term initiatives focused on existing or likely audiences might.
This growing awareness among the journalists we interviewed, that the audiences they
report to and the community members they report about are not necessarily the same,
complicated their interpretation of reciprocity, because it put them in a position of decid-
ing with whom they should seek reciprocal relationships. Until now, most journalists have
assumed that by informing the audience, they are serving the public. However, our
ﬁndings indicate that the emergent emphasis on reciprocity in public media suggests
that the public and the audience are diﬀerent—and sometimes even mutually exclusive.
14 V. BELAIR-GAGNON ET AL.
For example, if journalists hold a listening event to build stronger ties with certain commu-
nity members—such as those of lower socioeconomic status or those in troubled neigh-
borhoods who more frequently appear in news stories relative to how often they actually
consume such news—and the journalists decide not to use the material from that event for
any sort of publishable story for their audience, this would suggest that reciprocity is being
extended towards “the public”at the expense of “the audience.”
This potential dilemma facing news organizations demonstrates the novel issues that
are becoming apparent as more and more people within journalism adopt the idea that
news producers need to improve the quality of their relationship with stakeholders
beyond the newsroom—to incorporate, as it were, an “ethic of participation”(Lewis
2012). Audience engagement is a concept that has grown all but ubiquitous in journalistic
discourse, and it is nearly always portrayed as a normatively positive development for the
profession. Yet, as this study has demonstrated, pursuing engagement presents chal-
lenges for journalists in terms of establishing best practices and addressing ethical conun-
drums. When journalists determine that how they engage with people is as important as
the news they produce for them, they inadvertently put themselves in the position of
determining which voices get heard, under what circumstances, and on whose terms.
How they choose to handle this situation has consequences for the future of journalism
as an occupation and the market models that support it.
1. John Reith was the founding General Manager of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).
We would like to thank Andrea Wenzel, Nikki Usher, Colin Agur, the editors and reviewers for their
No potential conﬂict of interest was reported by the authors.
Valerie Belair-Gagnon http://orcid.org/0000-0002-7756-1688
Jacob L. Nelson http://orcid.org/0000-0003-2714-9924
Seth C. Lewis http://orcid.org/0000-0001-7498-0599
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