Editor's Blog - How we work, how we make decisions, how we serve Canadians.

Jennifer McGuire

General Manager and Editor in Chief

Digital News: Terms of Engagement

Categories: Journalism


Marissa Nelson is the new Senior Director of Digital here at CBC News.

She recently returned from the International Symposium of Online Journalism held each year in Austin, Texas. One of the topics they discussed there was how to build "engagement" with readers.


In techie circles these days, something called "responsive design" is all the rage. It essentially means that websites are designed to fit every device.

Instead of building a fancy website for iPhones, then another for Android, then iPad mini with a few apps thrown in for good measure, you build one site whose width adapts to fit whatever the width of the screen you're using.

To the best of my knowledge, CBC News is the first news organization in Canada to launch a responsive design website when we unveiled our innovative digital service in Hamilton. CBC.ca/Hamilton, which marked its one-year anniversary earlier this month, is innovative also because it's the first digital-only station a traditional broadcaster has ever opened in Canada.

What we learned with the Hamilton project was that responsive design is difficult to execute. Even if you're not a techie, you can probably imagine when you're trying to design a site that fits a Blackberry and desktop, it requires a lot of innovative thinking, design and coding.

The more interesting conversation I think, though, sprung out of the conversation at the symposium around responsive design not simply being a design approach but an organizational approach. We should simply be responsive in everything we do.

It used to be that all digital media were chasing page views - just raw, hard numbers. But CBCNews.ca is chasing something more than that. We want you to engage in our services, to feel that they are valuable to you. We call that "engagement."

Having a responsive design is really about building that engagement, being closely attuned to what Canadians want to know, writing the stories that matter to you, reflecting your communities, and having a conversation with you.

It means you come to us each day, multiple times a day, and that you want to spend time with our content.

The top research paper at the symposium looked at the Christian Science Monitor's move away from simple page views towards engagement. It's a fascinating study, written by Jonathan Groves from Drury University and Carrie Brown-Smith from the University of Memphis.

The Monitor was a traditional print-based organization that moved towards digital. They had a bell they rang in the newsroom when the number of page views reached a particular number. But it wanted a deeper relationship with its audience.

They had made themselves more relevant in using search engine optimization, but found that people weren't reading their international coverage -- something the Monitor is known for. So the organization worked on getting people to their homepage.

They used tools to help make that homepage more enticing, they created a special page for content that differentiated them from their competitors.

But, the paper points out, they haven't been entirely successful. They use social media, but it's still largely a one-way conversation. During the research for the paper, the Monitor also shut down comments. (A strange move when you want to invite your audience in.)

At CBC News, we are also exploring ways to increase our engagement. We have the most active commenting  section of any news organization in the country (more on that in a later blog post). We recently launched a ground-breaking project called Rate My Hospital. We not only gave hospitals report cards based on data, but we ask you to rate the hospitals in your community -- and we've had many thousands of responses. And as part of our Human Library project, we gave Canadians who couldn't get to a library a virtual opportunity to "borrow" famous Canadians "books" like Margaret Trudeau, author Robert Munsch and singer Shad. This space will be the place to explore some of those ideas and to get your feedback.

Engaging with you on the stories of the day is an essential element of our service. While we're good at it, I'm sure we can do more. If you have ideas, let us know in the comments on this post.

Tags: How We Work

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