What do you actually do?! Episode 2: Adam Smith – Audience Engagement Editor

Today’s episode of What Do You Actually Do!? explores the role of Audience Engagement Editor. Adam Smith works for The Economist ‘s social media team and it is his job to get people talking about everything the Economist writes about.

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K: So, Adam, what do you actually do?

A: Thanks for having me, it’s nice to speak about myself for half an hour [laughs] My job title is Audience Engagement Editor like you said, which is a fancy way of saying that it’s my job to get people online having a conversation about The Economist’s writing and our ideas. So that means that I primarily work on social media so I work on a thing called the social media team at The Economist, which does lots of things one of which is the conversational stuff that I do, and that means that I work on all of our social media presences – that’s Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, a bit of Snapchat, Line which is a chat app in Asia, and LinkedIn, and a few others to get people talking about everything that The Economist writes about because the founding mission of The Economist as a newspaper a 175 years ago, was to have a – are you ready for this language? It’s really ancient Victorian language – we were founded to “take part in a severe contest between an intelligence which presses forward and an unworthy timid ignorance obstructing our progress”. It’s a really fancy, Victorian way of saying that society needs to have an ongoing rigorous discussion about business, politics, and science, and the arts, and everything in society, and you need to bring rational thought to bear on that and good journalism, and we want to take part in that big discussion. So that’s kind of our founding mission at the newspaper, really, based on liberal values. Our founding editor, James Wilson, in 1843, could never have imagined something like Twitter, or something like Facebook. So now, over the past few years, we’ve taken that mission from 175 years ago into the social media space. That’s what I do.

K: So, you’re encouraging that kind of talk. How do you do that? Are you responding to people’s tweets and having a bit of a conversation with them, firing them up..? How does it work?

A: The primary way that we do it is simply by sharing our content. As a newspaper in print each week, we have around a hundred articles, online every day there’ll be a couple of articles. We also every week produce a bunch of videos and a bunch of podcasts. And that’s content that comes from our writers, correspondents, video producers, podcast producers, and most of that content is made with – I wouldn’t say it’s made with conversation in mind – but it’s certainly made to offer something new to that severe contest that I mention. That’s the point of doing anything in journalism, you want to be moving the conversation on in society about something. So all of that content is basically given to us in the social media team, and it’s that that we use to spark conversation. Simply by sharing it, by showing it in the right places online, and in the right ways – including sometimes asking questions… that’s the first primary way of getting the conversation going. And then there’s some more instrumental ways that we do it such as running a Facebook group which is one of my jobs. We actually have two Facebook groups, which is a way of diverting off from the main Facebook activity that we have. We have about 8 million followers. Diverting off those people who really want to have a really detailed and civil conversation, so we make this smaller Facebook group which we much more actively moderate and it’s me, my little face that pops up and says “hi, I’m the moderator and here’s today’s question and here’s maybe some content, here’s an article or something” and “what do you think about this issue: Should American gun laws be tightened up?” and so on those Facebook groups we have a few thousand people, obviously much smaller than the followers on our page which is millions and millions, but that means that we can have a more active and engaging conversation with those people. Sometimes it’s very instrumental in that way, and very active, and so on… 

K: Does anything happen with those conversations? Does that sort of fuel new conversations or investigations? Or is it sort of a one-way street? 

A: For us, currently, it’s more of a one-way street because of the way that The Economist works and has worked traditionally because it’s our custom, really, as a newspaper to be the kind of newspaper to say: “you pay us through your subscription to find out what’s going on in the world and we will tell you that” and that’s literally why you’re paying us.  It’s similar to being in a restaurant where you want to sit down and you want somebody to serve you your food, right? It’s a different experience if you have to go up to the counter and collect your food and then go to the till and pay for it; whereas a lot of newspapers, websites, and magazines, they are using social media to feedback ideas from the audience into the journalism. That’s not to say we won’t ever do that in some form… I can’t see it happening in a mass-scale at the moment because that’s not really what people expect from The Economist. It’s great that other publications do that but currently it’s not something that people expect The Economist to do, they think of us as a box of writers and thinkers who are well versed on what’s going on in the world and will tell them exactly that. It might be that on a small scale we experiment with a little bit of that and we have already done so, actually as I said my job title has the word “engagement” in it and we have done some small scale projects this summer that have been about getting the audience to feed into certain particular stories that we’ve worked on but not very much. So we’ll see, it’s a very dynamic job, really, and not just my job specifically but this job in the media industry in general is changing quite a lot. And the way any publication will answer your question today will be different to how they answer it in two years’ time.

K: So how did you get into the sort of world of audience engagement, because your background is more of like what people would think of as traditional journalism? So how did you break into this and realise this is an area that you’re interested in and want to be involved in? 

A: Because I was being a pretty traditional journalist, as you said, I was covering the politics of science for a newspaper, it’s a pretty niche subject but it was great, so I was reporting on – basically if you think of a political correspondent who hangs around in Westminster and says what the Brexit negotiations are, I was doing that but specifically around science and that was very traditional in the sense that I was finding out what was going on, I was writing about it for the web or for print and that was it basically. And I was really interested in the opportunity that social media and the internet presented us – to have a big conversation in society about that subject because I think it’s really important how science is funded, how science is regulated, who chooses what science is done, and all of those things – bearing in mind that’s five billion pounds a year that the public is spending on science, much of which comes to the University of York, you know, and all the science departments you that have here and the conversation wasn’t big enough – people weren’t involved in the conversation but I failed to convince my editors where I was to try and open up that conversation a bit more, and for us as journalists to be working more than just writing our stories but to be using social media more and having a bigger public conversation about that. I thought well, okay, I can’t do that big public conversation about this one particular niche area. So therefore I should look at how I can be part of the bigger conversation elsewhere. I saw a job at The Economist which was on the then new social media team, which was in 2015 – we were quite late to the social media game. They were basically building a social media team and so I knew that The Economist covered everything – politics, business, science, finance, economics, social issues – and thought “well, if I can’t take a small issue and bring it into a big conversation I’ll just join a big conversation that’s about everything” and so I applied and got that job. You asked how I did I break in but it was kind of just thinking about what I wanted to do and then just shopping around and there was a job that I applied for.

K: So this job now sounds like it’s giving you that opportunity to be involved in that conversation and given that it’s a new team, to really shape things that are happening there. Any other sort of particular elements of the job that you really enjoy or love about it?

A: I really enjoy being in a building full of really really big brains who are debating what the world should be like every single moment of the day. That’s the business that we’re in, and the editorial department is looking at what’s going on, analysing it, talking about it, arguing about it amongst ourselves, and then deciding collectively what The Economist should say about those things. That’s very much a unique aspect of The Economist because we don’t have by-lines in the newspaper, so you don’t know who’s written which article, and that’s usually because no article was written by one person. They’re mostly collaborative efforts and in any case there is a singular unifying voice, which is The Economist’s voice. That presents us with some problems on social media, which is very much often about personal profile and the currency of the individual and the power of an individual writer or columnist or something. So that presents us with some problems on the social media team, or some challenges I should say. But, nevertheless, it’s great being in a big giant room with really clever people who know all sorts of things, about whether an aviation carbon tax could work and how, and why we should do that or not do that, and, what are the implications of gay marriage in one country versus another country. All these different things, and we’re just constantly debating and talking about these things. So that’s the thing that I love the most, it’s being in that environment and talking about all of those things.

And then, another thing that I love is working with the junior people who are on my team and mentoring them. That also presents its challenges and there are some aspects of that that i don’t enjoy, but it’s good, really really good fun, to hire someone junior to develop them, to get them to recognise what they can do, and how great they are, and how great they can be, and build up their confidence and then see them work really well. I just yesterday bade farewell to a colleague who I hired a little over a year ago, so that she can go and work in the newsroom at Reuters news agency. So that’s brilliant and it’s really gratifying to see that.

K: Is there anything that’s sort of less enjoyable about the job, let’s say?

A: I would say it’s more of the same thing, like managing people is always a struggle, sometimes because some individuals are difficult, and I say that in terms of managing the people who report to me – the juniors – but also the people above me who I have to manage as well. That’s especially the case because I’m on the social media team at a newspaper that’s 175 years old, and some of my colleagues have been working with us for 175 years, or it seems like they have, and they have old ways of doing things and old ways of thinking about things and you have to convince them. Some of them you can write off and say, look, I’m never going to convince you that as a newspaper we need to be digital in 2018, I’m never going to convince you of that so I’ll write you off. But most people I think that I can persuade just enough and get them to see the opportunity that social media and digital stuff brings us as a newspaper, bearing in mind that founding mission that I mentioned.

K: That’s interesting because, dealing with people, that’s an issue in any kind of profession isn’t it? So, it’s not like journalism is any better or any worse than anything else in that sense.

A: I think in journalism specifically there are a lot of egos. Again, you would get that in lots of places, so dealing with lots of different people’s egos can be difficult, especially in journalism because the point of a journalist is to know what’s going on in the world and that’s the way that ego often manifests itself in a newsroom, is, “I know about this,”, “well, I know about this,” “well I know more than you,” and we don’t have arguments in that tone that I just said but kind of there is somewhat of a competition sometimes about who knows the best thing and I’m sure that’s not unique to journalism, but that is something that is very distinctive about working with journalists and editors.

K: OK, so you said at the start that your role is different across every different publication and that’s partly because digital is still relatively new and no one knows where it’s going. Are there any other key challenges or things on the horizon that students should be trying to anticipate? I’m thinking about what kind of skills they might need to break into this sector in the future.

A: Yeah, I think that whatever I say now is not going to apply in six months because it changes so much, but that therefore means that the foundational skill is adaptability and flexibility. So, to really know that things change so much in social media and specifically around publishers and how publishers use social media, and journalists and how they use social media. So, number one to be flexible and adaptable. That might be quite hard to demonstrate unless you’ve had enough experience where you can show how you did adapt and did flex from one particular thing to another, and if you worked on your student newspaper, for example, within the course of a year at least you should have done a few different things and changed a few different things in how you operate on social media. And if you haven’t, then as a newspaper you’ve been stagnating and your editor has been making some mistakes. So I think that would be one thing, to be basically make sure that you are adaptable and to somehow find a way to demonstrate that you have adapted to one situation or another.

Then, I think it’s kind of similar, but to know a bit about the social media industry, by which I mean what is Facebook up to, what new products is it building, how are users using it differently now to how they used it a year ago, and how are publishers and social media platforms working together. That’s basically been a huge story over the last few years, the way that publishers and social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter and Snapchat work together. Especially in an era of disinformation – what the president of the US called fake news – and the decline in trust in the media, which has been partly accelerated by the publishers’ inability some time ago to really influence how the platforms dealt with news and how they distributed news. That’s changed quite a lot now and I work with people at Facebook and Twitter and the other platforms to make sure that publishers like us are, basically that our content is treated well and that we can influence how those platforms use the content. So I think that it, personally I find it really interesting anyway, this particular thing about what is journalism for in social media when anyone can publish, and how do people receive journalism and news and what constitutes high quality news and what constitutes news that people need for their daily lives and what constitutes news that people need as sort of nutrients for being a good citizen in society and how do we use technology to get all of these things when most of the technology and the social media platforms are built for distraction, you know, oh there’s another nice cake on Instagram. Is that really helping you be a good citizen in society rather than knowing what’s going on in Westminster in the negotiations over Brexit? I’m not saying don’t have cake, but you also need to know what’s going on with Brexit. So these huge conversations that the news industry is having with social media platforms is really important, and I personally would be very impressed if someone, a relatively junior person or a graduate applied to join my team and knew a little bit about what was going on in that conversation between publishers and platforms. There are places where you can go to read about that –

K: I was just about to ask about that

A: Oh sorry, go on.

K: Any tips for where they can start their research?

A: Yes, so there’s an outfit in the US called the Nieman Lab. They’re based at Harvard University and they – there’s the Nieman Lab and the Nieman Foundation – and they report as journalists and thinkers about this space. There’s also a similar institute at Oxford University, the Reuters Oxford Journalism Institute, and they produce quite hefty reports on this sort of thing. There’s also a website called Digiday, which covers these things similarly but less academic and more on the commercial side. And so, to find out what’s going on those things are really helpful. And also, specifically, if you want to look parochially, my team has a blog on Medium called Severe Contest, and that is written by me and people on my team where we say what The Economist is doing on social media and what is mostly influencing our thoughts around this particular space.

K: Thank you very much for joining us today. Enjoy the rest of your time in York.

A: Thank you very much; it’s been great to be here and talk to all of your students.

Thanks for joining us this week on What do you actually do? This episode was hosted by myself, Kate Morris, and edited by Raquel Bartra and produced by both of us. If you loved this podcast, spread the word and subscribe. Are you eager to get more tips? Follow University of York Careers and Placements on Youtube, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. All useful links are in this episode description. This has been produced at the University of York Careers and Placements. For more information visit york.ac.uk/careers