2016 was a historic year in American journalism and media. Buoyed by new digital platforms, people consumed more news than any time in history. But that doesn’t mean that these platforms understand what their audiences really want, says media expert Sam Ford SM ’07.
“In the current model, publishers measure what’s easiest to capture, no matter how reflective of real engagement,” Ford wrote. “Advertisers accept inflated numbers industry-wide and continue putting the most funding behind stories which may have the least ongoing resonance.”
Ford is a longtime media executive and consultant who most recently served as vice president of innovation and engagement for Fusion Media Group and its parent company, Univision. He was one of a handful of media experts selected by Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab to share their predictions for journalism in 2017. Ford’s prediction: get serious about better forms of media measurement.
“People can share a piece without ever watching or reading it,” Ford told Slice of MIT. They often ‘count’ as a click or a view, even when they don’t end up really reading or watching. These methods don’t measure how deeply they are actually engaging with or understanding the content.”
Ford says that, in 2016, audiences were too often delivered unmemorable stories light on content and too focused on a provoking a knee-jerk response that didn’t even require reading the full story. He advocates for new ways to extend the shelf life of good content; tackling issues in audience diversity, which can help unearth stories that would otherwise be missed; and building relationships with the publics who would care most about the specific story.
“It’s important to make sure those stories are seen by the communities who care about the issues we cover most,” he wrote. “The days of telling a story and just suspecting all those who care about that issue will somehow find it are behind us.”
During his time at Fusion, Ford had an embedded seat for the journalism industry’s 2016 colliding tornadoes of content, platforms, and messaging, and their too-often-misleading results. His innovation and engagement team at Fusion Media Group focused on identifying readers who cared deeply about issues covered by Fusion and acting as a point of contact with readers on feedback and community concerns.
His team partnered with different editorial groups to explore ways to better deliver content that explained complicated issues, like professional wrestler Hillbilly Jim describing how to hide money in an offshore shell company or the use of a mobile game as part of an investigation into the wide-reaching effects of gerrymandering.
“It’s about creating an entry point for lay audiences,” he says. “Especially for audiences who may not automatically make a dry or complicated topic appointment reading. You try to find an entry point that’s easy to engage with, in hopes that it draws them in deeper.”
In addition to his consulting work, Ford hopes to help apply these methods and lessons learned to his academic and volunteer roles at MIT, where he is a research affiliate with the Department of Comparative Media Studies/Writing and a member of the Alumni Association’s inaugural Graduate Alumni Council.
“It’s about creating a relationship-based approach,” he says. “And then asking, ‘what’s the goal?’ We’re trying to connect people to MIT in a meaningful way. Whether they’re slightly engaged or have great memories of being at MIT, we want to connect them together and to MIT’s mission.”