What ‘authentic’ audience engagement really means — and why it’s so effective

It all comes down to two fundamental things.

Hey y’all! Anita here. Almost exactly a year has passed since my very first The Other Wave missive went out to the world on Sept. 20, 2020. It’s been quite a ride since then, and I want to thank all my subscribers for supporting me, especially you day-one loyalists. 1️⃣

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To mark the one-year anniversary of this newsletter, I’ll be talking about one of my core specialities: audience. But before I do that, I want to explore the idea of ~ authenticity ~ and why it’s a prerequisite for successfully engaging audiences. 

Whenever I describe The Green Line to someone for the first time, I emphasize the importance of having a team that authentically reflects the communities we report on and ultimately serve. On a few rare occasions, I’ve encountered people who’ve raised their eyebrows at this emphasis on “authenticity” as if it’s just a buzzword. Typically, these skeptics are well-served by existing media and aren’t in The Green Line’s target audiences.

To me, authentic audience engagement comes down to two fundamental things: understanding and respecting your audience.

Sounds simple enough, right? But when I reflect on my previous employers, more often than not, they failed to understand and respect their target audiences, which ultimately led to the failure of the outlet itself. For example, while working at a media company that reported on underrepresented communities, my former boss would be dismissive of the people who made up those communities. I recall one conversation we had about generating consumer revenue from a news desert I was connected to; my former boss snapped at me, saying, “Who the f*ck am I supposed to get money from? People like you?” The assumption was that folks from this community wouldn’t pay for news, which was a condescending generalization given the diverse backgrounds of the people living there. From that point on, I knew we’d have a hard time engaging that community. Why would they support a company that doesn’t respect them — and in fact, respects them so little that top leadership didn’t even think they’d notice such disdain?

Another former boss of mine at a millennial-focused digital media outlet expressed a similar sentiment after leaving storied publications of record to run the fast-growing startup. In the second sentence of a post announcing his hire, my former boss threw shade at his new employer, writing, “To some, it might seem a bit of a departure. You might imagine a headline like: ‘Longtime [publications of record] veteran forsakes legacy media for digital upstart.’” During his tenure, my former boss tried to shoehorn formats that worked for the audience at his previous employers into our digital media outlet — without consideration for what actually resonated with our audience. Shortly before I left the company, my former boss racked his brain trying to figure out the outlet’s value proposition and how it would stand out among our competitors. I remember thinking the answer was quite simple (after all, it was the reason why I joined the company in the first place), and then wondering why someone who didn’t understand and appreciate our audience or ethos would be hired to lead. 

I contrast these experiences with my time at Complex, an urban youth culture-focused media company that has thrived on the strength of their audience engagement. As the former news director at the New York-based outlet, I saw firsthand how Complex’s newsroom was made up of fans-turned-staff who loved the brand fiercely, which is precisely why they knew exactly what would resonate with our followers. Complex reporters and editors intuitively understood and respected our audience because they used to be part of that very audience. Rather than looking down on them, the Complex team embraced and embedded the values (i.e. realness, self-worth), imagery (i.e. sneaker culture, streetwear) and language (i.e. hip-hop slang) from the culture with which our audience identified into engagement strategies. 

At The Green Line, I’m also trying to meet our three target audiences — action-oriented young urbanites, underrepresented Torontonians and culture vultures — where they are. Indeed, I consider myself and my fellows to be part of these audiences. For our journalism to resonate, we must have a team that genuinely understands and respects them. And what better way to do that than hire people from those very audiences?


In my community

  • I'm running for re-election in the 2022-23 Online News Association Board of Directors election this year! Click here to find out how I've contributed to the ONA community during my first term and why you should vote for me. Voting opens Sept. 28 and closes Oct. 18. Thanks in advance for your support.

  • I’m hosting the Institute for Nonprofit News’ monthly Info Sessions for Startups, which give journalism entrepreneurs a realistic picture of what it takes to launch a nonprofit news organization. I’m also partnering with INN to offer strategic coaching to their members through The Other Wave.

  • After four-plus years of studying and supporting membership models in news (not to mention being an invaluable source of info for member-driven outlets), the Membership Puzzle Project ended in late August. In this post, the team describes how they brought their public research project to a healthy close. 

  • Please join me at The Walrus’ Talks at Home: News & Platforms panel, which will also feature The Narwhal’s Emma Gilchrist, IndigiNews’ Emilee Gilpin, Le Devoir’s Brian Myles and The Walrus editor-in-chief Jessica Johnson, on Sept. 23. I’ll be talking all things The Green Line. Register here.  


Cool stuff I like

In this special edition of Cool Stuff I like, I’m ranking films I saw at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival from best to worst. As diehard film fans, every September, my fiancé Lucan and I put together a spreadsheet where we rank all available TIFF movies from most to least interesting. We then do a weighted ranking of our individual rankings, and try to buy tickets for top picks that fit our schedules. 🤓 🎥

Here’s my list for this year:

  1. The Humans

  2. Medusa 

  3. The Guilty

  4. Scarborough

  5. Titane

  6. DASHCAM

  7. The Electrical Life of Louis Wain

  8. Zalava

  9. Last Night in Soho

  10. You Are Not My Mother

  11. Encounter

  12. After Blue (Paradis Sale)

For those of you who attended TIFF ‘21, email me your recommendations!


Election stuff

As my fellow Canadians know, tomorrow is Election Day, so get out and vote! 🗳️ 

With so much information available about Canada’s 2021 federal election, we know how overwhelming it can get to wade through everything. That’s why The Green Line, in partnership with the On Canada Project, created this handy election guide to keep it simple.

In it, you’ll find a clear breakdown of all four major parties’ policies and promises on reconciliation, climate, employment and housing — issues that gen Zs and millennials in Canada are particularly concerned about. We also talk to two non-partisan experts on which party they think offers the best path forward for young Torontonians.

Finally, check out my latest Outside the 9 to 5 column for Global News, titled “Young Canadians are struggling economically. This election is our chance to fix that.”


How you can support The Other Wave

My professional mission has always been to support the global movement towards more thoughtful, impactful news coverage, and all the ways that manifests. If The Other Wave gets you to think even a little differently about journalism, especially in Canada, then I will have accomplished what I set out to do. And if TOW gets you to take action and support Canadian media outlets — especially ones that strive to be innovative and inclusive — I will have exceeded my expectations.

If my values and goals resonate with you, please consider supporting fiercely independent media analysis that fills in gaps in coverage of the Canadian journalism landscape. How? Feel free to provide feedback, pass along resources, donate money or simply share this newsletter with your friends.