‘Everything has to live on its own’: Top tips from an audience journalist

Bobby Blanchard is assistant director of audience at the Texas Tribune

As much of Texas plunged into darkness earlier this month, Bobby Blanchard and his colleagues at the Texas Tribune sprung into action.  

From launching a texting service to keep readers informed during power outages to fielding pressing questions from readers, audience engagement was critically important to serving the community. 

But what does a typical day as an audience journalist look like?

We reached out to Blanchard, the Texas Tribune’s assistant director of audience, to find out what journalists can learn from his daily routine uncovering reader trends on social media and messaging platforms; what he learned about audience engagement after the winter storms; and best practices for newsrooms writing social media content.

We loved your Twitter thread on what it’s like to be an audience journalist. Can you tell us the story behind this series? What prompted you to share a day in your role?

Blanchard: Honestly, a phone call with my dad. A few weeks earlier he had asked me: “Tell me what your busiest day was in the past week, and tell me what you did.” I blinked and spaced — I couldn’t remember any day from the past week. The past year has made all time blur together. I said something to the effect of: “Uh, probably Tuesday?” but I couldn’t remember much of what happened that day. I went back and checked my calendar, and sure enough, Tuesday was the day of the governor’s State of the State address that week. How had I forgotten that?

So when I woke up that Sunday [Feb. 21] and made my list, I decided to ruthlessly document what I did that day and share it elsewhere. I could have probably added five to 10 more tweets to that thread of other details, but I think it was self-indulgent enough. My dad, for the record, liked the thread. 

What are the two or three lessons you learned about your role in the coverage of the winter storms? 

Blanchard: This isn’t a new lesson but it is one that I always love to reapply: Readers ask the best questions if you give them the opportunity and space. Since we launched our new texting service, readers have sent us some of the most interesting and detailed questions.

Speaking of, we learned a lot from launching our new beta texting service during the crisis. Bandwidth was challenging, but the connection we’ve established with readers is so valuable. We’ve heard from so many people who told us they were able to get essential information from us. A lesson I learned here is that, short of sitting down and answering a reader’s question in person, texting with one is probably as close a connection a newsroom can get with their audience right now. 

The other thing I would say is people are increasingly turning to media institutions to serve as their lifeline in times of crisis when their government is unable to give them the information they need. I keep thinking back to when reporters were making vaccine appointments for citizens at the beginning of the year because the system was too difficult to navigate for some. It warms my heart to see so many newsrooms taking their mission of serving their community so literally. But at the same time, there’s something very broken about it. 

Weather is a great equalizer; during the Texas storms you mentioned in your thread that “costly Texas power bills” was one of the most talked about issues among your readers. In that case it was easy to determine what your audience needed to know. What is your typical process for finding what topics will resonate most with readers when there isn’t a natural disaster?

Blanchard: I have a workflow that I go about every day, but this is really about news judgement. 

I check Twitter trends for me and I use a tool called Nuzzle to see who is sharing what among a couple of different Twitter lists. I use Crowdtangle to see what people are talking about at big Texas publications, smaller rural publications and big, national publications. I check our incoming messages — reader email, responses to callouts, comments on social, etc. I check Google Trends. I do the reading, essentially. 

That process worked on Sunday. On that Sunday, multiple publications had stories about big power bills and those stories were all over Crowdtangle. A New York Times headline on the topic was trending on Twitter. Readers were texting us questions about whether they would see big power bills. Some days it is easy to know what questions or concerns readers have. That Sunday was certainly an example of that.

As an audience journalist, you likely see a lot of disinformation spread on social media. How do you engage with these readers? What advice do you have for other journalists to help stop the spread of disinformation?

Blanchard: For sure, all the time. My best advice is to show, not tell. If we’re writing about vaccine misinformation, we can do more than say, “vaccines are effective, experts say.” We can say that both vaccines have reported 90+% effective rates at preventing serious illness, that clinical trials show serious reactions are extremely rare, etc. If we’re writing about voter fraud, we can do more than call allegations of voter fraud “baseless claims.” We can also say “nearly every single lawsuit brought by the Trump campaign alleging widespread fraud was dismissed for lack of evidence.” 

If we’re fact-checking lawmakers, public officials or widespread misinformation, it’s less helpful to just say, “they’re wrong,” and more helpful to show how they’re wrong. That’s not to say you engage in “both side-ism” for the sake of it — don’t say: “One side says X but the other side says Y.” You still tell people what is true. Just give them more tools to see it. 

What are the top tips you would like other journalists to know about audience engagement?

Blanchard: This is less specific to audience engagement and more specific to how we approach our jobs, in general. When I was the Tribune’s social media editor, I told people it was my job to manage the Tribune’s social media accounts. At least, I did until someone told me to try describing my job in more grandiose, exciting terms. I started telling people my job was to ensure the Tribune was a leader in the conversation online around Texas policy and politics. That’s more ambitious and gave me a runway to try more exciting things.

My role has changed over time, and my title today is assistant director of audience. I tell people my job is to make sure everything we do finds an audience, and that everything our audience needs about Texas policy and politics can be found with us. That’s more ambitious than saying “I run audience for the Tribune.” So try this: Describe your job in a way that makes you feel like a hero. Give yourself some flair. You deserve it — it gives you a runway to ambition and exciting ideas. 

I would point people to a couple of other resources my Tribune colleagues have shared recently regarding audience engagement: 

  • Sally Beauvais, our engagement reporter on the Tribune’s investigative unit with ProPublica, shared this thread about how to ensure your readers get the help they need.
  • Regina Mack, our off-platform editor at the Tribune, shared this thread about alt text and why it is so important. I really wish more newsrooms would do this — it would improve accessibility for so many. 

Lastly, on a foundational level, this is one of the first things I tell fellows about writing social copy or using social media to share reporting: Everything has to live on its own. Tweets, Facebook copy, Instagram posts, headlines — all of it. Anything we do has to have all the information and context to be to complete. Do not assume the reader will read a full article. Assume they will only see whatever it is you’re sending out to the world. That’s why it is so important to not repeat falsehoods in a tweet without providing the appropriate context. That’s why social copy about suicides need to provide hotline phone numbers and resources. That’s why headlines need to be specific. I sometimes see people withholding key information from a social post in a misguided attempt to ensure more people click through to read the article. I think this is one of the worst things you can do — because at the end of the day you’re making the information ecosystem worse. You’re not helping anyone. And that’s what this job is supposed to be about.

How are you taking care of yourself during the pandemic?

Blanchard: I don’t think I’ve done a very good job with this, but I’ll share the little advice I have: I try to go easy on myself. I let myself enjoy my guilty little pleasures (video games, a book in the hammock, my YouTube subscriptions). When I am not working, I do whatever it is that my gut wants to do — and nothing else. I take Slack, Gmail and sometimes Twitter off my phone on days off. People talk a lot about the Golden Rule — treat others as you would treat yourself — but the inverse needs to be true, too. So I try to be as kind and empathetic to myself as I would be to a best friend. I would never say to a friend, “wow you sucked at your job this week” — so it is unacceptable for me to speak to myself that way. I don’t always meet my own standard — imposter syndrome is a fickle beast — but I try. I always try. And right now — especially right now — I forgive myself for not being able to do more than “try.”

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