It’s a new jungle out there, and it’s digital.
Jake Batsell, assistant professor of digital journalism, has been guiding students through the rapidly shifting world of digital media since 2008, looking over their shoulders as they publish blog posts, upload video pro- jects or send out their first Tweets. He works to keep students current on the latest digital developments and practices. For example, seven years ago, he helped them start SMUDailyMustang.com, an award-winning campus news site that has since teamed up with the independent student newspaper, SMU Campus Weekly, and the broad- cast station, SMU-TV, to become SMUDailyCampus.com.
An avid Tweeter, blogger and social media player, Batsell was motivated in 2012-13 to take a comprehensive look at new models of journalism in the digital age and the focus on “engagement.” His findings are detailed in his new book, Engaged Journalism: Connecting with Digi tally Empowered News Audiences (Columbia University Press, 2015).
“‘Engagement’ is a buzzword thrown around in the media so often that it’s almost become meaningless,” he says. In his research he found that engagement, jargon aside, was saving newsrooms and journalists around the country, from legacy publications to start-ups. In the book he outlines five practices that successful media outlets have in common: connecting with audiences in person; digitally interacting with audiences at every step; serving niche audiences; empowering audiences to satisfy their own curiosity; and measuring effectiveness and value.
“In researching the book, I went to places that were trying out new things to connect with the audience,” he says. “I hope Engaged Journalism can provide an opportunity for newsrooms and individual journalists to do a self-audit and ask, how well is my news organization doing in these areas?”
In early drafts, Batsell says he had to be careful not to paint the industry through rose-colored glasses. A former reporter for the Seattle Times and Dallas Morning News, he himself made the jump to academia as the economy and the media industry in particular nose-dived in 2008. Many of the subjects interviewed in his book stay optimistic, but admit to being exhausted by the 24-hour news cycle. As he watches his students start their job hunt every year, he stresses the need for passion and stamina. “I wanted to present a clear-eyed perspective for people in the industry, and those aspiring to be,” says Batsell.
Just about the time he was putting the finishing touches on his book, he was named one of two national recipients of a new fellowship offered by the Austin-based Texas Tribune digital news organization, a publication considered a leading journalism innovator. His work on the book dovetailed nicely into his fellowship appointment, for which he was tasked to investigate “best practices in nonprofit news and ways in which the economic model supporting public media can be tweaked to provide more plentiful, stable and predictable resources.”
For the fellowship, he traveled the country conducting research on news organizations that rely on readers or sponsorships to directly contribute to revenue streams. For decades, National Public Radio has relied on this model; now more traditional outlets are adopting similar strategies. Batsell found media companies employing everything from subscription services to “native” ads, which are sponsored online ads that mimic the same form as an article written by the editorial staff. He documented his findings during his time at the Tribune on his blog, News-biz.org, where he also released unpublished interviews he’d conducted for the book. At the end of his fellowship he put together a 10,000-word research piece (available online) titled “Earning Their Keep,” which delves into sustainable practices for nonprofit media outlets.
“There was definitely some overlap in my research for the book and my time at the Tribune, although they were separate experiences,” says Batsell. Both have been integral in what he’s brought back to campus to teach.
During the fellowship year while he was away from SMU, he notes, entrepreneurship had spread like wildfire on campus, with initiatives like the arts entrepreneurship program in Meadows and the SMU Provost’s Big iDeas Pitch Contest, in which students present business plans to a panel of judges to win up to $5,000 in start-up capital. His return to the classroom in fall 2014 was an ideal time to continue incorporating his findings into his teaching.
“I wanted to present a clear-eyed perspective for people in the industry, and those aspiring to be.”
“It’s been such a wonderful affirmation of what I’ve always taught students about the importance of financial sustainability for their career prospects,” says Batsell. “I’ve also stressed the importance of understanding the business model they plan to work in and that their work has to be satisfying.”
Batsell is practicing what he teaches as the book has made him an entrepreneur as well; he sells it at conferences and regularly interacts with readers. And when he’s not engaging with readers, posting online or leading a classroom, Batsell can be found helping train the next generation of journalists as an adviser to SMUDailyCampus.com.
“Done well, engaged journalism never ends,” says Batsell.
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