Why We Talk About Impact With Readers

As part of the News Impact Project, we’re happy to share a few select blogs from our friends at the USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center’s Media Impact Project and guest blogger Anjanette Delgado, senior news director for digital at the Detroit Free Press.

One of the first things you see when you Google Karisa King is her bio, which ends like this: “Her stories have led to stronger patient protections and uncovered the mishandling of sexual assault cases in the U.S. military.”

I knew I’d like her right away. With just four sentences summing up her 20-year career as an investigative reporter and editor, she used one of them to talk about the impact her work has had on society.

Why?

“When I think of investigative reporting and the impact of what we do…I think it’s important to signal to readers in that way that we place a lot of emphasis in terms of social value,” King told me. “Impact can come in many forms, but it usually involves some change for the greater good.”

King now runs the investigations team at the Dallas Morning News. Before that she ran investigations for the Las Vegas Review-Journal for three years, and before that she was an investigative reporter in Chicago and San Antonio.

“Investigative reporting is at the core of our mission as a newspaper,” she said. “We can’t afford to do investigative reporting as a luxury. We have a responsibility to provide a check on power and shine a light on abuse. (The) audience expects to see those stories.”

When one of their stories is a catalyst for change, a reporter will write about it as a follow-up story to the original investigation.

“Again, that goes back to letting readers know we view that as a core part of our mission,” King said. That includes law changes or even bill filings — “anything that is more of a concrete step toward reform or even calls for reform, we write about it.”

John Hancock works with King and runs a team of computational journalists. He’s also hiring for one, and this is listed in the job posting as an essential function of a computational journalist: “Create or monitor metrics reports and other feedback loops to measure project impact.”

I needed to talk to him to know what that means, because as soon as you ask someone other than an investigative journalist what they mean by impact you can run into a wide range of answers. For a guy like Hancock who straddles the worlds of tech and journalism, impact means at least two things:

First, it’s real-world change, like “Pain & Profit,” a 2018 investigation into Texas’ managed care system. On that project, a computational journalist worked with investigative reporters to bring system abuses to light, and now bills to overhaul Medicaid await Gov. Greg Abbott’s signature.

Their timing was fortunate, he said. The series published in the months leading up to the biennial session of the Texas Legislature, making it top of mind for lawmakers.

Second, you have his team’s effect on the company business.

“There’s also the impact we have in terms of our newsroom goal of increasing digital subscriptions,” he said. “That’s the metrics side of it. Things that play into that are how many people are using a tool we’ve built or a site that we’ve built.”

Time on site, returning visitors, page views.

“It’s really two sides,” Hancock said.

Computational journalists at the Dallas Morning News work most closely work with the investigative team. They build web apps and data visualizations, and they develop tools to help journalists work faster and more efficiently.

“There’s a real inherent expectation that what you’re working on is going to have some sort of impact on somebody,” he said. “The expectation as a computational journalist working with the investigative team is you’re going to have your hands on something that’s really going to matter.”

Impact can be surprising and unpredictable, and we can debate the extent to which reporters have any control over outcomes.

Nonetheless, the opportunity for real-world change is a factor in green-lighting projects at my newsroom, the Detroit Free Press, and on King’s team.

“The potential for impact is absolutely part of that calculus on the front end for me as an editor,” she said.

Try it:

What’s your why? Share it with your audience to sustain your future,” by Jennifer Hefty. Reporters at the Fort Collins Coloradoan take a crack at convincing readers why they should become subscribers and fund journalism with their own bios. It reminds me a little of Karisa King’s impact statement.

And an impact story:

The City, the new nonprofit digital news source designed to fill a gap in local coverage of New York City, has notched another early win. From the May 30 newsletter: “You might remember last week how we revealed that a Brooklyn community board bought a $26,000 SUV. The story gained some attention – including from Mayor de Blasio, who called for an investigation.” You can support The City here.

Anjanette Delgado is the senior news director for digital at the Detroit Free Press and freep.com, part of the USA Today Network. Twitter: @anjdelgado.

This story was originally published by the USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center’s Media Impact Project on June 11, 2019, and is republished here with permission.

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