Digital First’s Buttry: Turning Community Engagement Into Profit

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Shortly after he began working for Journal Register Co. just over a year ago, Steve Buttry took to his blog to explain his new title — director of community engagement and social media. Keeping his definition under Twitter‘s 140 character limit, Buttry wrote, “Community engagement = News orgs making a top priority to listen, to join & to lead conversation to elevate our journalism.”

With that definition in mind, Buttry has challenged newsrooms under the Digital First Media umbrella (which includes all Journal Register and MediaNews Group holdings) to come up with innovative proposals for new ways to engage their audiences. The company released the 12 winning proposals — and there has been a thirteenth since — in May, with ideas ranging from pop-up newsmobiles that serve coffee and donuts to citizens, to community discussions to discuss the news, to blogger training for members of the community, and more. The ultimate goal of the projects, which Buttry says he expects to all be fully realized by the end of the year, is to attract bloggers to join their local newspaper networks.

Street Fight caught up with Buttry recently to discuss the community engagement projects and how they will ultimately be profitable for Digital First.

Why did you issue this challenge to Digital First’s newsrooms. Did you find that community engagement was lacking in local newsrooms?
Most traditional newsrooms tend to follow the traditional model of things being mostly one-way. We’d have some two-way conversations over letters to the editors, [and] we’d occasionally have contests or certain things that engage the community — but we didn’t make the community conversation part of our daily routine traditionally. So it’s not faulting our newsrooms — that’s just how newsrooms used to operate.

We’ve decided in this digital age, with more people having tools to publish and make their views known, that we need to listen to and join that conversation that’s going on. It’s not all digital, but digital has certainly accelerated the community conversation and the ability for people to be heard. All of our newsrooms were deficient in this area and needed to change; not through any fault of their own — just the industry they were in needed to change.

Quite a few newspapers have sought to recruit local bloggers to join their networks and contribute content to their sites. Why can it work for Digital First?
It already is. We don’t have it completely for MediaNews yet, but all of our Journal Register newsrooms have recruited blog networks. We’ve got excellent coverage of Philadelphia sports. There are people who blog about the Phillies or the Eagles or Philadelphia sports in general, who are part of our network who are just supplementing the coverage we do. They’re not going to replace our Phillies beat writer, but there’s a whole lot of interest in passionate sports in the Philly area.

But some of them also blog about neighborhoods or communities that we either never covered or don’t cover as well as we used to, and they’re just blogging about their own neighborhood news. We’ve got a whole lot of people who blog about parenting, so a lot of the blogs are in the lifestyle area that newspapers have traditionally covered. But again, those are areas that have probably been hurt by cutbacks. If we’ve got three or four mom bloggers and a dad blogger blogging about parenting, it adds to the experience of people who come to our site that we’re linking them to people in the community discussing these issues. And it helps build their audience. So it’s a win-win situation.

How can these efforts be profitable?
The best example is Torrington (Conn.), where we have the longest, best example of aggressive, innovative community engagement, with the Newsroom Café project that was recognized by [the Associated Press Media Editors] as the Innovator of the Year. Before journalists came along and started these community engagement efforts and digital sales efforts — they have to go together — Torrington was a money-loser. And now it’s a profitable operation. The engagement is part of building the brand, and the better brand you have, the easier the sale is for your sales staff. And the better brand you have, the more you’re going to feed in traffic. The more you become a place to find everything in the community, you’re going to generate more traffic, which generates more revenue.

It operates on multiple levels in terms of actually generating revenue, building a brand [and] partnerships that add value to what we’re doing. It’s a multiple-front battle here to get your place in the digital marketplace and make that place profitable.

Digital is often seen as a younger person’s game. How much of these engagement efforts, particularly the blogging, are meant to attract that demographic?
The key to survival is getting that younger audience. The baby boom, which is my generation, is plentiful and has driven business decisions for a generation now, and we’re still plentiful, and we’re still important, but we’re also dying off and getting older. So we need to be attracting that contingent and serving the needs of the younger audience. And that younger audience is on mobile devices and computers much more than they’re ever going to be in print. So the more we engage digitally, the better our chances of building up that relationship with the younger audience that will be the key to our future.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Patrick Duprey is an intern at Street Fight.