ProPublica engagement reporter Ariana Tobin on defining her role

Why newsrooms should invest in editorial hybrid positions

By on August 16, 2017

This is one in a series of blog posts from the MJ Bear Fellows, three journalists under 30 selected each year who are expanding the boundaries of digital news. Applications for the 2017 MJ Bear Fellowship are now open – you can learn more here.

Ariana Tobin is an engagement reporter at ProPublica and a 2015 MJ Bear fellow. We got together on G-chat to talk to her about her job and why the journalism world needs more audience engagement / editorial crossover roles.

My comments are in bold and our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.


Alex Laughlin: Your title at ProPublica is “engagement reporter.” I remember the whole audience engagement internet kinda freaked out when we saw that listing because it was explicitly NOT a “social media editor” job. How did you feel when you saw it?

Ariana Tobin: Yes. It was written by my now-coworker Terry Parris, who is as anti-BS “engagement” language as anyone I have ever met. And the truth is that the title is totally made up and a work in progress. But that also makes it cool, because it means we get to sort of shape it as we learn.

I grilled Terry and Eric Umansky (our editor) about what that would would mean for your usual audience engagement needs like social and analytics, as well as promoting stories. They both said “We’re ProPublica, the only real metrics we have to fulfill are about impactful journalism.” So anything that doesn’t fall into that bucket, we get to evaluate a little bit differently.

I took the job. Then Trump was elected. And I started soon after.

So we asked ourselves what kind of accountability journalism people needed in this current political climate. We published things like this blog post and tweetstorm where we laid out exactly what we’re going to be covering and how you can get in touch with the specific people on it, myself included.

Alex: How would you say your role is different from a more “typical” reporter’s role? (I ask this with some skepticism because I suspect someday in the future all reporter roles will be more like yours)

Ariana: It’s a really important question that we talk about a lot. It’s more collaborative, because I’m often working on other people’s projects. And it does involve bigger institutional jobs — like I am sort of de facto weekly newsletter editor at ProPublica, because we’re calling that an engagement experiment where we have different journalists talking to subscribers each week, sometimes (hopefully more as we get going) answering questions or speaking to points we know our readers care about. Like this recent write-up on email privacy from our newsletter security guru.

Alex: I’m curious what you think about appending the term “engagement” to something. I have the impression (and maybe this is my bias based on the places I’ve worked that’s showing) that adding the word “engagement” somehow cheapens your work journalistically. Not in my eyes, but I feel like in the wider world of “Journalism” with a capital J, that’s the perception.

Ariana: YES. I think that perception is widespread.

Alex: Why is that?! I mean, I know why that is. It’s because people think all we do is post on Twitter and Facebook.

Ariana: And in some places that is all an engagement team does. I also don’t want to cheapen the value of that work, because I think there are a lot of strategic thinkers doing it and building audiences, and writing well for different kinds of audiences.

Alex: It’s like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, but for audience engagement. You can’t be a sophisticated liaison with your audience and really engage with them if you’re working in a newsroom where the engagement team only thinks of itself as posting on social platforms.

Ariana: That’s exactly what I was thinking, but not in those words.

Alex: It’s a thing that seems like it has to be done and it takes a lot of time, and you have to go through so many levels of evolution before you can reach that point.

Ariana: Your audience also starts to see themselves in a certain kind of way.

Alex: Totally.

Ariana: I think a lot of engagement projects also stick to that level, like “TELL US WHAT YOU THINK.” You’re just doing it as a gimmick. So your audience sees it as a gimmick. And your newsroom sees it as a gimmick. Likely a gimmick that doesn’t go that well in terms of real stories.

Alex: So how do we convince newsrooms that they need to reach the tip of that pyramid if they just see engagement as the bare-minimum base of the pyramid?

Ariana: Staff something, let it succeed, learn what you can from its success, and then figure out how to staff it better next time. You get what you invest — invest in a thing people care about.

Alex: But how do you convince a newsroom that they even need that? It’s such evolved thinking for some places.

Ariana: I don’t know if most newsrooms will ever get there, but I also don’t know if they’ll have a choice.

Alex: I like to think that competition with peer / aspirational organizations will drive innovation. But that’s the cynic in me. I want to believe that as more of us digitally native people rise through the ranks, more of our jobs will become de facto engagement-y. So many of us started in those basic social media jobs, and now we’re getting to our third and fourth jobs in our career, and that experience doesn’t just go away.

Ariana: Yes, I hope the same thing.

Alex: How would you tweak your role to make it replicable across different organizations?  

Ariana: So for us, reporting tends to be very Serious. About Weighty Issues. Wrongs Unto the Vulnerable. But reporting using the toolkit of engagement can actually be even easier when it’s a lighter subject people care about.

Alex: I love that phrase, “toolkit of engagement.” What would you put in it?

Ariana: Knowing how to understand analytics – but not just because you’re freaking out about low numbers. Writing a really on-point mass email. Putting together a survey with the types of questions that will give you answers in a useful format.

Alex: Understanding how to interact with readers in a way that feels mutually beneficial.

Ariana: I think it’s really dangerous to make journalism in a vacuum. It can be beautiful! Or powerful or meaningful! But we’re not just in it for the poetry. It’s meant to exist for someone.

Alex: Nothing irks me like when people talk about how they never think about audience. If you’re not thinking about the answer, then you’ve landed on it by default. Why wouldn’t you make a deliberate decision, rather than a passive one?

Ariana: I think there’s a purist reaction that’s like “why would we make something for the cheap common denominator?” or “It’ll sound the same, let them be surprised.” But that’s a false dichotomy. You don’t need to think about the biggest audience, you just need to think about the right one if you’re hoping your work will make a difference.

Alex Laughlin

Alex Laughlin

Alex Laughlin, a 2016 MJ Bear Fellow, is a News Audio Fellow at BuzzFeed. She's also the co-founder of Pay Up, a private, Slack-based community dedicated to fostering conversations about the gender wage gap. It was formerly managed by the Washington Post.