The news is served: How newsrooms can connect with communities

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(Photo: Philippe Put via Flickr/Creative Commons)

(Photo: Philippe Put via Flickr/Creative Commons)

Why do “engagement” work — creating and joining conversations around our stories? Because we all can. Because change is good. Most of all, because we must.

[Insert discussion of changing landscape of journalism and struggling business models]

That was a little bit of a joke, folks.

All kidding aside, when we get closer to this mutually beneficial relationship with our communities, it gets easier to make a case for financial support and for our own relevance.

People will pay for something they find valuable — how can we make sure we’re worth it?

We can serve our neighbors and our world by involving them in the process from start to finish. We have to know who they are, what they value, and how they consume information. And we have to demonstrate that we know these things by bringing the stories to them where they are.

We can do all of the slickly produced journalism we want. But it means nothing if nobody knows it’s there.

It’s the difference between writing in a personal journal and journalism. Journaling is for the writer. Journalism is for the community. It’s not about us.

Here I propose one framework for addressing these issues in modern newsrooms.

Let’s get started. The news is served.

Making room for engagement

Do you have the support needed to set your effort up for success? You’ll need:

Support from the top: Do the people whose opinions really matter in your organization agree that this is worth pursuing? The answer needs to be yes.

To acknowledge that this effort is a priority: Ask “What can we stop doing that isn’t working well so we can make room for this?”

Baseline understanding of engagement tools: After you figure out which group you’re trying to reach most, find out where they gather online. Do you know how to use whatever tool you’ll need to use to reach them? Get a baseline understanding of the tool as a personal user first.

For example, if you decide you’re trying to connect with female business owners in the area, find out how communication between those business leaders takes place. Get in touch with a group of female business owners (perhaps via an established organization) and ask if they communicate via any particular channels (Facebook groups, email lists, etc.) Once you have some answers, ask if you can participate, share your work and ask questions in those spaces. You need to be of the group, stating that you’re interested in telling their stories and finding out what’s important to them.

Whose job is it to “do” engagement work?

The short answer? Everyone’s. But, in reality, the details might look a little something like this:

For either a strategy overhaul or project-based approach:

  • Project Manager: Directs logistics among all team members and any outside parties. Measures what’s working and what’s not. Has the final say, when necessary.
  • Collaborator/Producer: Implements the process with content as agreed upon with the project manager and other team members.
  • Vested Reporter(s) and Editor(s): Content creators. Willing champions of experimentation. Front-line person who communicates frequently with the project manager and the collaborator/producer.

For a project-based approach, I’d suggest adding the following roles, if possible and appropriate:

  • Subject/Beat Reporter: Hopefully, this person is also the Vested Reporter, but we all know that’s not always the case. For your first project as a staff using this framework, I’d suggest trying to find a project that allows a Vested Reporter and a Subject/Beat reporter to be the same person. If that’s not possible, have the Project Manager serve as coach or to the Subject/Beat Reporter.
  • Community Collaborator: Someone in the community who knows this issue or topic in and out. Could act as a sounding board for ideas, a collaborating producer, someone to help get the journalism out to people or to convene groups. (They could even fund your effort, perhaps, with clear and transparent disclosure of their involvement everywhere).

Internal reporting: questions to identify and refine your goals

If you’re overhauling your organizational engagement strategy, ask stakeholders to discuss these questions:

  1. What is our mission as an organization? Do we still agree with it? Is it modern? Does it reflect who we want to be for the next 10 years or so?
  2. How well does our structure, who we employ, how we produce content and what we produce live up to what our mission states? How?
  3. Who are we currently reaching? How do we know?
  4. Whom do we need to reach? How do we know?
  5. How do our fans perceive us? How do we know?
  6. Why are people who aren’t our fans (or don’t know about us) outside our reach?
  7. What does engagement mean? (Create a common understanding of this — it can be multi-faceted).
  8. Is our community changing? How are we adjusting to that change?
  9. Are we staffed appropriately to allow us to pursue our goals? Someone in the organization must be the decider for engagement-related topics. Whether this is its own position or part of someone’s role, engagement strategy cannot just float as a responsibility. This person should also, if possible, have a deputy, or have someone cross-trained to help when the primary person is away. This work requires cultivation of relationships and keen attention to detail — it’s arguably one of the highest-profile positions at your news organization, akin to an on-air personality or star writer. Staff it like the front line to your community that it is.
  10. After answering all of these questions, what are our takeaways? Who do we want to reach most?

Once you’ve completed that process, answer the following questions for each topic you’re addressing or story you pursue:

If you’re working on a project-based engagement effort (or individual story), answer these questions in sequence, before reporting:

  1. What is the specific need you’re trying to fill or question you’re trying to answer? Can you boil it down to one sentence? This also helps you describe your project to others.
  2. To whom is this topic important? Think about factors such as age, education level, race, socioeconomic status, geography, access to technology, and marital status. There may be several groups you identify here, but your journalism should be laser-focused on serving one group especially well.
  3. Why is it important to the targeted community? How do you know? Don’t assume — ask! This can take time to figure out. It’s worth it to be comprehensive in answering it.
  4. How do the people who need this information or are affected by this topic consume information? Is the community digitally connected or do they engage with each other in other ways? (If the answer is no, consider physical/analog or events-based engagement strategies. They can be an important part of the puzzle.)
  5. How should the journalism be reported, presented, published and/or broadcast? What tools does your organization already have that can be used to create journalism or information that will best serve this group of people where they are?
  6. How will the group you identified know about the project? This goes back to the whole “Why do it if no one will see it?” core principle.
  7. How will we know if we are successful? How will we follow up?

If you’ve got it, use it: Turning to the sources you already have

Once you’ve identified the topics you’ll cover or the first opportunities to test your new engagement strategy, the Project Manager can work with the Vested Reporter/Editor to determine a starting point. Before you try to find new sources in the beat or topic, it’s a helpful idea to document and use the sources you already have by creating a shared database. This isn’t a “must have” for this framework, but it can pay dividends in the future, perhaps even financially.

Here some general characteristics for putting this database together:

  • Is it relatively simple to use? Use as stripped-down a system as possible so that it can be sliced, diced and sorted in numerous ways (using Google Sheets or something similar is a good start).
  • Is it sortable?
  • Is it searchable?
  • Is it accessible to the entire organization?
  • What is the plan for its maintenance? Who will be the keeper of the database?
  • How reliable is it? Is the place where the information will be stored stable?
  • If it’s a more advanced system, what is the customer support situation?

Beyond the structure, there are conversations

Now it’s time to start populating your database. This is a process best facilitated by conversations and group work with the Project Manager and Vested Reporter/Editor.

Beyond the typical categories, also consider including information about each source in the following categories:

  • Website
  • Social media handles
  • Email
  • Neighborhood of residence or company significance (especially useful for those with brick-and-mortar organizations focused on neighborhood issues or businesses)
  • Key topic interest or expertise

Start with power players, then involve broader communities

  • Who are the “typical faces” in this issue? Start building your database with these names first.
  • Then, have the Vested Reporter, Project Manager and Collaborator/Producer have conversations with each of these power players. Questions for those conversations can include: Who else should we know that we don’t? Who is someone they speak with regularly or from whom they get the inside track on this topic or beat? Include any names you get from these conversations in your database.
  • Remember the people you identified when you asked “Who are we trying to reach?” and “To whom is this topic important?” Go find these people and talk with them! Put them in your database, and find out who they know and where they find out about the topic you’re interested in pursuing. Then put those people in your database as well.

Report. Publish. Share. Test. Measure. Adjust. Repeat.

Ah, reporting. It might feel like we’ve just put on an old, comfortable sweater, but here are a few fresh tips the Vested Reporter(s) can use to inject easy bits of modern engagement within the tried-and-true:

Pre-reporting:

  • Ask outside the newsroom: While you’re formulating which questions you’d like to ask, consult with members of the community on what they most want to know about the issue . This can be done publicly — say, on social media — or privately. Most of all, do this in the place where members of the community most affected by the topic (or in most need of the information) already are.
    • Don’t worry if the story falls through or takes a different turn. If anyone asks, be honest about your process and say simply “I wanted to tell the story as well as I could and as truthfully as I could. That’s why I went in a different direction.” Transparency is key and refreshing in an era when people are increasingly distrustful of “the media.” Show them the human thought process behind your work.
    • If you’re using Twitter to consult the community, here are a couple of sample tweet formats for this type of engagement: “I’m interviewing an underwater basket weaver Tuesday. What do you want to know?” or “Live in Neighborhoodtown? What questions do you have about the new school?”
      • Remember to keep these short; you’ll want folks to have plenty of room to reply.
      • Think about the nature of the topic. Is it something people will likely want to respond to in public or private? If it’s a delicate or potentially embarrassing topic, provide an email address for responses or set up a Google form they can fill out.
      • These are starting points. Verify them as you would any other source.

While reporting:

  • Share as you go: Interview someone? If appropriate, take a photo of them, share a quote if you had a great interview, and say, “Stay tuned for the rest of the story soon.” Be sure to let the person know that you’re posting the photo and quote, and use their social media handles while sharing.

After reporting:

  • Share that story: Why do the story at all if no one sees/hears/reads it? Remember those people you talked to for initial questions or those you identified as most affected by the topic? This is your chance to let them know about your work.
    • Share it on social media. Pull your best facts, quotes and statements to share. Why would someone care about this story? Use that. (And ask that question for great headlines, too).
      • Share your story more than once, but space it out by a few hours or so.
      • Consider what people will be doing when interacting with your work. Share during the time (and day of the week) they’re most likely to be receptive to your topic or story. Don’t know these specifics? Ask members of the communities around the topic and go from there.
      • Remember to share your story where the people who are most affected by the topic of your story are talking to each other. This can mean online or in person, if possible.
    • Use your legacy medium (if you have one like print, TV, or radio) to cross-promote:
      • Be specific. Say “For great photos of the underwater basket weaving studio, visit our website.”  Do NOT say, “For more with artist Kelsey Proud, visit our website.” You want to see those photos, right? What does “for more” mean? Not much.
  • Use social media for testing (This is where the Project Manager and Collaborator/Producer come in)
    • This is a fun time to try some different things and see what works. Try some A/B testing of different tweets from the same story and measure your results in quantitative and qualitative ways (more on that below). Does targeting individuals about a story work better than sending out a general tweet or posting?
  • Metrics for success (qualitative and quantitative):
    • When judging the success of a story, numbers aren’t the only metric, but they are the easiest to use. The best assessment of success should include both quantitative and qualitative measurements and observations.
      • For quantitative analysis, use the metrics tools native to the social networks you’ve used to share your stories. If these tools are not available or don’t exist, you may have to decide for yourself what the most important numerical metric is for the platform and the story. Discuss this as a team.
      • For qualitative analysis, things get a little more interesting. Did the story get shared by influencers in a community? That’s a plus. Was it shared by people who are really directly affected by it? Also a plus.
      • For more on both qualitative and quantitative engagement metrics, and picking a metric or two that’s best for you, see Joy Mayer’s work on “The Engagement Metric.” To duplicate it here would short-change you, so check it out.

A final note on success measurement, change and accountability:

Most importantly, please remember to share what you learn with your team, including the reporters and editors. This can help your organization make smarter choices about story selection and presentation down the road.

And, as I said at the very beginning of this framework, demonstrating the success of a story can even help your organization’s bottom line.

Finally, no matter your role, remember to use what you learn — and return to it. Keep sharing successes and be accountable. Stop producing things that don’t work.

Remember, you’re not only accountable to yourselves, but your community benefits when you keep pushing to serve them better. Change is not always easy, but it’s almost always worth it.

Kelsey Proud is Digital Innovation Editor at St. Louis Public Radio. She is a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, where she earned a Convergence (Multimedia) Journalism degree. Before coming to St. Louis Public Radio, Kelsey spent time at PBS Interactive in Washington, D.C., and MSN UK News in London. She feels journalism is truly a public service, hopes her work enhances community and reaches those who need information most. Kelsey lives in St. Louis with her husband and one very loved dog. This commentary was adapted from a report for the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute at the Missouri School of Journalism.