Media funders launch initiative to restore audience trust through engagement

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Several funders are betting that media organizations can build trust with their audiences through engagement and listening.

A new grant-making initiative from the News Integrity Initiative, the Democracy Fund, the Knight Foundation and the Lenfest Institute for Journalism will subsidize the costs for newsrooms to adopt tools for integrating their journalism with their communities. The Community Listening and Engagement Fund — or CLEF, a nod to “key” in French and the symbol indicating musical pitch — kicks off with support for newsrooms to implement Hearken and GroundSource, platforms that help newsrooms strengthen their relationships with audiences.

Jennifer Brandel developed Hearken at WBEZ in Chicago with the aim of creating a scalable platform for soliciting questions from audiences to set a newsroom’s agenda. More than 100 newsrooms now use Hearken; roughly half are public media or nonprofit clients. (Current uses the Hearken platform for its Currently Curious series.)

GroundSource is an engagement tool that uses mobile messaging to gather community stories and to build two-way communication between journalists and audiences. It has just north of 30 clients, 15 of which are public media and news nonprofits.

“Readers respond with their time, their trust, and their money to news organizations who listen best to them,” Jim Friedlich, executive director of The Lenfest Institute for Journalism, said in a statement. “Strong listening skills are both a journalistic and a business imperative.”

Trust in media is at an all-time low, according to a recent report from Gallup and the Knight Foundation. The survey found a strong correlation between political values and distrust of the media. Most respondents said they couldn’t cite an objective news source.

Initial funding of $650,000 will allow CLEF to work with 50 to 75 newsrooms over the next two years, funding the use of Hearken, GroundSource and other audience engagement tools, Friedlich said in an email. “CLEF will be a catalytic driver of these proven engaged journalism practices to help them spread to newsrooms of all sizes across the United States,” he said.

This first iteration of CLEF is an experiment, Friedlich said, adding that the funders will report on their learnings. They ultimately plan to expand the fund to include new partners and more newsrooms.

“We expect after initial testing in 2018 to expand the type of tools we fund in late 2018 or early 2019,” Friedlich said. “Beyond that, new funding will be driven by results.”

U.S.-based newsrooms or international newsrooms with a U.S.-based fiscal sponsor are eligible for the need-based grants. Hearken and GroundSource will each charge $8,500 for the first year of use; grants will cover 25 percent to 75 percent of that cost. Recipients will be chosen based on newsroom size, need and plans for using the tools, among other criteria.

Applications will be accepted in three cycles throughout 2018, according to a news release. Nonprofit journalism organizations, including public media and journalism schools, as well as community-based for-profit media and first-time partners of either Hearken or GroundSource will receive preference.

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