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‘Focused listening’ can help address journalism’s trust problem — here are four examples

Public distrust and negative attitudes toward media are critical problems facing many news organizations. This distrust feels deepest among particular alienated groups — such as conservatives, or neighborhoods where a minority group is the majority — with whom many publishers have scant or shallow ties.

Building trust with these disengaged or neglected communities will require many approaches. Some solutions address news content, such as transparency in reporting or angles of stories. But other solutions strengthen relationships. Notably, some news organizations are confronting the issue through listening.

We’ve paid particular attention over the past few months to newsrooms seeking to listen to the audiences they don’t already have.

With the help of Ashley Kang, director of Syracuse University’s South Side Community Newspaper Project The Stand, we’ve gathered examples of focused listening projects — efforts to hear from particular populations newsrooms recognize they need to better understand, reach and serve. These populations may vary from racial and ethnic, socioeconomic, gender, religious, political or even interest-based definitions.

Focused listening — in which newsrooms make efforts to listen to their underserved or disengaged audiences — demonstrates that a news organization cares about people like you. In the examples we’ve found, such projects are an important foundation for establishing trust. The first step in any good relationship is hearing one another.

But don’t take our word for it. We asked four journalists in communities across the country to explain in personal essays the listening approaches they’ve used to deepen ties with communities they want to better serve. Each of these essays outlines the sources, story ideas, relationships and benefits their newsrooms have received from such efforts. They also do not shy away from sharing the challenges they came up against.

The four essays in this collection are:

  • How The Tennessean hosts meetings with alienated audiences to listen and understand.In Tennessee, The Tennessean invites specific communities to dialogue with its staff through in-person listening events hosted at its building. The conversations help journalists understand the issues and perspectives of communities newsroom staff may not know as well as they’d like. Among the first groups, writes Director of Opinion and Engagement David Plazas, were Muslim leaders as well as gunowners — and the insights led to story ideas, sources and nuance to inform coverage.
  • How a Boston nonprofit newsroom starts its listening by popping up where people live and play. In Massachusetts, the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism has piloted pop-up newsrooms — simple efforts to be present in neighborhoods the organizations want to serve. This includes the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston, one of Boston’s historically black neighborhoods. Showing up and listening, writes the nonprofit’s co-founder Chris Faraone, has deepened source and audience relationships between Boston neighborhoods and the young nonprofit.
  • How Richland Source held an event to serve local mothers — and listened, too. In Ohio, digital-only startup Richland Source organized an event to serve one local population — mothers — and listened in the process. Helping mothers as well as setting up a Listening Post, writes reporter Brittany Schock, provided deeper insight into the joys and fears of Ohio moms and fit their mission as a community connector.
  • How Alabama Media Group uses simple text-messaging to listen to diverse voices.In Alabama, an Alabama Media Group journalist digitized his listening activities, building off a fellowship with the Reynolds Journalism Institute. Creating news “deputies” from particular backgrounds including immigrant communities and families with members who have been incarcerated, writes Connor Sheets, has demonstrated that some focused listening efforts can be augmented by digital tools.

The essays demonstrate the impact this focus can have in engagement work. If the reflections leave you more curious, the authors have graciously included their contact information to answer questions. And to learn more about the role of listening in journalism, check out our page of listening resources from API and others working on this issue.

How The Tennessean hosts meetings with alienated audiences to listen and understand

Photo credit: David Plazas / The Tennessean

Editor’s note: This is part of a collection of essays on how to reach new audiences by listening. We asked four journalists from across the country to explain approaches they’ve used to build trust with specific communities, particularly those who may be alienated or disengaged. Writing from Tennessee, David Plazas describes how The Tennessean’s diversity and inclusivity task force invites segments of Nashville’s community to its building to have dialogue and build understanding.

Brave civil rights activists, black and white, defied Jim Crow in Nashville in the 1950s and 1960s by sitting at whites-only lunch counters.

They knew they would encounter hostile workers and patrons. Many of the protesters were arrested. However, their efforts eventually led to end legalized segregation.

Today that legacy is commemorated in the Civil Rights Room at the Nashville Public Library, overlooking a downtown intersection near where segregation protests took place. On the wall of that room is a quote by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “I came to Nashville not to bring inspiration, but to gain inspiration from the great movement that has taken place in this community.”

It was a perfect setting for some of our modern-day Tennessean staff to gather and wrestle with issues of diversity and inclusion that still affect our staffing and coverage today.

Our top editor Michael A. Anastasi tasked me with the responsibility of forming and leading a new Diversity and Inclusion Task Force just a few weeks before.

He wanted to send a strong message to staff and the community that we would be intentional about and committed to discussions on racial, ethnic and ideological diversity in our coverage and our newsroom staffing that would welcome all our journalists and yield tangible results. We not only had support from the top, but direct access to Michael as well as to Brent Jones, who was USA TODAY’s standards editor.

Over the next several months we met with very different community groups — young American Muslims and older gun owners — created a nationally recognized series on affordable housing and its impact, especially on working class African Americans; and tackled some tough discussions, such as, how we cover white supremacists in the post-Charlottesville era.

The task force met for the first time in 2018 on Jan. 11 and discussed programming for the year, including reaching out to veterans, disabled residents, Evangelicals, the transgender community and disenfranchised voters.

Our origins and mission

I have been involved with numerous diversity efforts in my nearly two decades with Gannett – from councils, committees and conversations to recruiting talent and mentoring students at journalism conventions – and what has made this task force special is the grassroots and inclusive nature of it.

The core team includes reporters, photographers and digital producers; Nashville natives, immigrants and recently arrived transplants; newsroom veterans and green journalists.

They are all empowered and emboldened to speak their minds about how we reflect diversity and inclusion in our staffing and in our coverage.

In the first months, we created a mission statement and began a series of monthly task force meetings, open to the entire newsroom, which yielded important conversations with the community and improved our journalism.

Our mission statement reads:

The Tennessean’s Diversity and Inclusion Task Force seeks:

1) to add diversity meaningfully in coverage, the language we use and how we engage our community;

2) to act as a sounding board for concerns and ideas regarding how the newsroom fulfills No. 1;

3) to provide recommendations on relevant standards and policies; and

4) to champion diversity efforts throughout the newsroom.

The definition of diversity and inclusivity relates to creating an open environment that values people of different backgrounds and points of view.

Among one of the successes this year was refining standards for publishing op-eds on the editorial page, especially those that are controversial and may border on bigotry.

The two-prong test asks these two questions: “Does it further the conversation? If it doesn’t, why are we giving it a platform?”

Using community conversations to build relationships

A key part of the work of the task force is to get out of our comfort zones and meet with people who we would not normally encounter.

As such, we invited members of the community representing common interests or backgrounds to meet with our journalists at The Tennessean over the past year.

Meeting the Muslim community

On March 8, 2017, we met with a dozen young American Muslims who shared their stories and left us with generous pieces of advice.

Here is how this meeting came to be:

Over the last two years Nashville-area Muslim leaders had been meeting with The Tennessean Editorial Board, of which I am a member, to understand the issues of concern and strengthen our relationship.

The first meeting in 2015 stemmed from my decision to run a pair of op-eds in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre. Controversial Vanderbilt University Professor Carol Swain wrote a piece that called for surveilling local Muslims, while Paul Galloway, the former executive director of the American Center for Outreach, wrote a piece arguing that Tennessee Muslims had condemned the Hebdo attacks and stood for freedom.

However, Swain’s piece received the most attention from readers, and Muslim community leaders wanted to express their fears and concerns, and also share their perspectives.

Our guests want journalists to cover them not just when Islam makes the news, because of a terrorist attack or vandalism at a mosque, for example, but in everyday stories on education, transportation and housing.

Our meeting in 2016 was not based on any controversy, but on continuing to build on the relationship and mutual understanding.

In 2017 we agreed that a third meeting aligned with the goals of the Diversity and Inclusion Task Force and we decided to focus on American Muslims who had live in Nashville most of all of their lives and make this a meeting for the whole newsroom, not just the editorial board.

Galloway helped the task force identify our guests — and they ranged from a sheriff’s deputy to an entrepreneur and from a teacher to an engineer.

In most cases, they felt more connected to the United States than to the Middle East, North Africa or South Asia — their regions of origin or ancestry. One participant said when she visited her parents’ country of Afghanistan, she felt more American than ever before.

One important takeaway was that our guests want journalists to cover them not just when Islam makes the news, because of a terrorist attack or vandalism at a mosque, for example, but in everyday stories on education, transportation and housing.

Getting to know gun owners

On June 14, the community conversation focused on gun owners and gun rights.

Journalists have developed a reputation for being out-of-touch and tone-deaf on these issues, which is why it was important to have the discussion. I have written in a column: “We selected gun ownership as the discussion topic because the media is often accused of promoting a gun control agenda, in which guns and anyone who owns one are villains.”

In Tennessee nearly half of all households own a gun and over the years state lawmakers have proposed new laws to allow for where firearms owners can carry concealed weapons — like public parks, college campuses and even legislative offices.

The NRA hosted its annual convention here in 2015 and it became the best attended conference in the history of the city — drawing 78,865 people. At the time, it was the second-best-attended NRA convention in history.

We selected gun ownership as the discussion topic because the media is often accused of promoting a gun control agenda, in which guns and anyone who owns one are villains.

I wrote a column inviting people to participate in our conversation and received dozens of replies. They included gun aficionados, firearms instructors and NRA employees. Amazingly, the participants were very receptive.

There was some pushback from gun control advocates who felt we were using our platform to favor a “pro-gun” viewpoint. However, the point was to delve into this particular viewpoint.

Fifteen of our journalists joined the conversation, which consisted of roundtable and mini-group discussions.

While the participants skewed mostly white, older and male, the conversation showed diverse views, from those advocating for as few restrictions on gun ownership as possible to those demanding training before someone is ready to own a firearm.

Earlier that day, a man fired shots at and wounded some members of Congress who were practicing for a charity baseball game. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise and others were hospitalized. Those events entered our conversation.

These were 10 key points from the discussion:

  • Take personal responsibility for safety; taking guns from criminals may not be realistic
  • Provide balanced media coverage
  • Present statistics accurately
  • Avoid presenting the “gun as the bad guy”
  • Armed civilization equals a free civilization; Second Amendment protects the First Amendment
  • Responsible gun ownership is important to gun owners, who carry not to shoot or hurt people
  • Description of gun type must be accurate
  • Media should shift away from polarization, controversy and sensationalism
  • On mass shootings: “This is our new reality”
  • Media should make clear in crime stories involving firearms if the gun was lawfully obtained or not

The final takeaway was that we all agreed that responsible journalism and responsible gun ownership were paramount. Three of our guests even invited me to go out to the gun range, with one welcoming me to fire machine guns with him.

Since that meeting, our guests have served as sources and writers of letters to the editor and op-eds several times, most recently after the Oct. 1 mass shooting in Las Vegas.

Coverage changes as a result

Our series “Costs of Growth and Change in Nashville” was born and brainstormed in the Diversity and Inclusion Task Force. The mission was to hold a mirror to Nashville, give voice to the voiceless and offer solutions.

This became a yearlong project that focused on affordable housing, displacement and the growing gap between prosperity and inequality in the city.

The most-affected populations are low-income and working-class African Americans who live in neighborhoods in the urban core, which were abandoned by “white flight” of the 1960s and 1970s, but have now become popular and affluent places to live near the popular downtown.

This provided an important vehicle for the Diversity and Inclusion Task Force’s work to engage community members and tell the stories of marginalized communities.

That engagement included a public forum in April 2017, a book club discussion in June and a capstone event on Dec. 20 that involved a mini-documentary, panel discussion and Q&A, all which were at capacity and were achieved in partnership with the Nashville Public Library.

Inspirations

An important inspiration for the Diversity and Inclusion Task Force was a conversation the American Press Institute hosted at Temple University in June 2016.

I had been invited as one of several dozen journalists nationwide to talk about diversity and how to make the topic relevant for newsrooms.

After that conversation and with my boss’ encouragement, it became clear that we could not just let this be another discussion on diversity that came and went. We wanted to do something meaningful.

I invited a core group of five people, who willingly joined and agreed to meet once a month for at least an hour. The group organically grew and the conversations and forums drew other staffers who came to observe or participate. Every month, I send the entire newsroom an invitation to attend meetings and minutes after each meeting.

The task force members felt empowered to direct and influence the agenda and have their voices heard. We have sustained those efforts into 2018.

One of our charter members Getahn Ward, a renowned and prolific real estate and growth reporter, passed away in December after a brief illness. He had been an active task force member, whose conversations and ideas, strengthened our work. A board member of the local chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ), he also provided an example for other journalists to become part of these efforts. We honored him in the “Costs of Growth and Change” mini-documentary.

I am enthused by how our newsroom has embraced these efforts and wants to see newsroom and coverage that reflects the diversity of our community. That is essential to creating an inclusive culture that attracts and retains the best talent.

We look forward to an exciting year in 2018.

David Plazas can be reached by email at dplazas@tennessean.com.

How a Boston nonprofit newsroom starts its listening by popping up where people live and play

Editor’s note: This is part of a collection of essays on how to reach new audiences by listening. We asked four journalists from across the country to explain approaches they’ve used to build trust with specific communities, particularly those who may be alienated or disengaged. Writing from Massachusetts, Chris Faraone describes how the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism has created a simple physical presence in Boston neighborhoods.

When summarizing my first two years of running a nonprofit journalism shop in Boston, I often use the spot-on aphorism that necessity is the mother of invention.

That’s the best way to explain how, before we had real funding but needed to get our name out on the street and hit the ground reporting, my small team simply packed some folding chairs into a hatchback, filled a box with office supplies including an old-fashioned Rolodex, purchased an inexpensive carpet, and borrowed a desk to anchor a nomadic newsroom.

Our destination: a public common in the heart of Roxbury, one of Boston’s historically black neighborhoods where gentrification, among other critical issues like violent crime that I have covered intensely for years, is a primary concern. Our mission: meet community members, listen closely, and ascertain what people think is lacking in general coverage of their neighborhood.

That initial trial led to us setting up tables all over the place, from a Noam Chomsky event in a church to block parties in working class neighborhoods, with our team testing various ways to engage with strangers. We gave away free merchandise and used cool props like vintage typewriters to get people to sit at our desk.

Instead of just repeating the trade show procedure of requesting emails, we solicited story ideas. And leads. And sources for potential articles. Some participants wrote on the marker boards that we provided, while others asked for business cards and followed up afterwards. In one case stemming from that first pop-up experiment in Roxbury, a BINJ reporter wound up profiling a man whose story we first learned about in a curbside interview.

How pop-up newsrooms work

Prior to popping up on our own, I first encountered the idea while sitting in the audience of the Engage Local National Conference in June 2015. The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism I was designing with my partners was still embryonic, and I had come to the New Jersey journalism summit to meet others who were also looking for solutions.

Even though BINJ was still just a baby back in 2015, I was already preaching the idea — my gospel — that far too many university-based journalism programs are walled off from the communities in which they are located. Besides being a disservice to neighborhoods, where schools often help fuel gentrification, the students are ill-served by an apparent lack of interaction with residents.

My ears perked up at the idea of a pop-up newsroom — what I’d soon come to understand as an initiative in which reporters basically set up shop, interact directly with folks in a social setting, and in certain cases even write and edit stories on laptops.

The inspirations at Engage Local came from speakers representing Montclair State University’s NJ News Commons and the Philadelphia-based Billy Penn, both of which had organized election night press hubs in public spaces. I took their ideas back to Boston, brainstormed ways to shape them for our readership, and got to popping up.

[Pop-up newsrooms are] an initiative in which reporters basically set up shop, interact directly with folks in a social setting, and in certain cases even write and edit stories on laptops.

The rest is history. The history of journalism, that is. Corny as it sounds, the spirit of engagement my crew tries to harness hearkens to Newspaper Row, a 19th century Boston district in the crossroads known today as Downtown Crossing. Back then, barking tabloid hockers scratched headlines on giant chalkboards as the passersby dropped tips.

It may be something of a buzzword these days, but at its core engagement is a tool used by all media makers who value the voices of marginalized people. From Nellie Bly getting herself committed to live in a cold asylum, to Jonathan Kozol exposing decaying schools from the inside, many of my writing heroes have been bold civic engagement masterminds (and don’t get nearly as much credit as they deserve from media establishment types, but that’s another essay altogether).

Between the Billy Penn example and a grassroots media philosophy that I developed reading Kozol, Bly, and countless others while working for alternative weeklies, pop-up newsrooms were a natural extension to my repertoire, as well as a tangible sign of what we hoped BINJ would become. They also didn’t require significant funding, which was attractive in our early days since resources were hard to come by.

Impact and lessons

Though we were recognized for hosting pop-ups by some journalism blogs and peers, I didn’t realize just how radical our efforts were until a summer festival last year in the Jamaica Plain section of Boston. Our booth had chairs for people to relax in and was quite inviting. To promote a feature we had published about sustainable living arrangements, we made our space look like the footprint of a tiny house by spraying chalk on the ground in the outline of a small home.

As visitors asked our reporters about things like affordable housing and upcoming elections, one row over there was a much more professional-looking booth belonging to our city’s newspaper of record. Unlike our arrangement, though, they had no actual journalists for people to speak with — just a hired street team. No sharing. No meaningful exchanges. Whether intentional or not, the message that the legacy broadsheet was sending is that it wants money from subscribers, but not their thoughts, knowledge or ideas.

After watching festival-goers and Bostonians at various events learn about our articles by physically interacting with props, we started to design and build educational games from scratch. We developed a series of interactive activities based on BINJ stories and research, like one game in which people are asked to match cut-out heads of local politicians to a list of corporate contributions their campaigns have gorged on. We even had a holiday engagement carnival at a local brewery where the BINJ team was able to test multiple prototypes.

There have been occasions when our take on the pop-up is fully functional, with our reporters generating stories on the spot. One of my favorite examples is how BINJ covered the 2016 New Hampshire presidential primary, when we took over the front room of a bar in Manchester and designated it as a refuge for independent journos. Like our regular pop-ups, the makeshift newsroom in the field was a great place for media makers to get face time with locals. As important, though, was that alternative and grassroots journalists had a place to convene, trade tips, share resources and put strategies in place to help each other in the field.

In addition to securing scoops that they would have missed without such a communal hub, several writers and photographers who didn’t know each other previously wound up collaborating. We recently used a similar approach in our fleet coverage of mass demonstrations in Boston, and will continue fostering that group dynamic between freelancers.

We were asked by the American Press Institute to share our reflections on these pop-up trials, and to also offer any tips we have for those who are considering similar initiatives. The good news is that anyone can build on the ideas laid out here, whether or not there is funding involved. You don’t need a grant to get started — just a table and chairs and a desire to meet people.

We have had success bringing reporters who are good at listening, and with piggybacking an activity that is already happening — outdoor movie nights, crafts fairs, community days at cable access TV stations. We come ready to chat, with audio and video recording capability in case that it is needed and subjects are comfortable being taped.

Our team at BINJ is hard at work compiling a detailed resource outlining projects we’ve done so far, including pop-up newsrooms, that we believe will come in handy for reporting incubators all over the country — from those who we are already helping start their engines, to those who come to us from this point on looking for guidance. In the meantime, we recommend that journalists across the board, from tabloids to trade publications, go out there as often as possible and ask readers questions directly. They have a much better idea of what kind of reporting they would like to see than I do.

Chris Faraone can be reached by email at fara1@binjonline.org

How Richland Source held an event to serve local mothers — and listened, too

Editor’s note: This is part of a collection of essays on how to reach new audiences by listening. We asked four journalists from across the country to explain approaches they’ve used to build trust with specific communities, particularly those who may be alienated or disengaged. Writing from Ohio, Brittany Schock describes how Richland Source organized a special event that followed reporting on a difficult topic, and listened more deeply in the process.

The topic of infant mortality isn’t easy to broach among most people. In fact, a close friend told me she had avoided reading about the topic because it “scares the bejeezus out of me.”

It’s not an unreasonable fear. Between 2005 and 2015, there were 14,877 babies born in my adopted hometown of Richland County, Ohio; 108 of those babies died. That equals an infant mortality rate of 7.3 deaths per 1,000 live births. It’s an issue seemingly impossible to tackle in the healthcare field due to its complexity, and terrifying to think about as a parent.

So we decided to take that uncomfortable energy and channel it into something that will help the community, as opposed to simply informing readers that a problem exists.

Instead of focusing on the tragedy of losing a child, we wanted to focus on the happy, positive experiences of being pregnant and welcoming a new baby into the world. A baby shower was the best way to do that.

As a journalist covering the infant mortality epidemic in my community, I knew approaching a mother about the scary parts of being pregnant and raising children was going to take a delicate touch. In fact, I decided not to approach them at all.

A standalone microphone and a question will get you a long way.

To create this opportunity, I organized an event — the Richland Source Community Baby Shower — to connect young families with myriad community resources and to educate and support healthy pregnancies and babies.

From 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 9, 2017, our office at Richland Source saw approximately 500 people come through. It was going to be nearly impossible to engage with every single person in a meaningful way.

At the Baby Shower event, I set up a Listening Post, a journalistic tool that allows newsrooms to make meaningful connections within their community without the pressure of face-to-face interviews. A standalone microphone and a question will get you a long way.

Ask experienced mothers their best advice for new parents, and the answers are pretty predictable: Sleep. Ask for help when you need it. If your kid will eat nothing but hot dogs, then let them eat hot dogs.

But ask expecting mothers what they are most nervous about, or what they are most looking forward to, and the answers can be surprisingly poignant: Nervous about failing. Nervous about accidentally hurting their child. Nervous about giving birth.

“I’m most nervous about being good enough, but I’m looking forward to meeting her and being the best mom that I can be,” was the response from a young teenage mother expecting her first baby on Christmas Day.

It was a vulnerable idea to share. And it was exactly the kind of answer I was hoping for.

Creating and using the Listening Post

I first learned about the concept of the Listening Post at a Solutions Journalism summit in April 2017, where I presented my written series on infant mortality in Richland County. It was there I met Burgess Brown, community manager at the Listening Post Collective, and I knew immediately I wanted to find a way to incorporate the idea of freestanding journalism into a future project.

Instead of bringing journalism to each person, we decided to let them come to the journalism. That’s where the Listening Post came in.

The large volume of people we saw come through the Community Baby Shower combined with a sensitive topic like infant mortality was the perfect recipe for a Listening Post. It gave mothers the opportunity to speak only if they wanted to, and the Post was very low-maintenance for the journalists involved.

We partnered with the Renaissance Theatre in Mansfield to build our Listening Post, which amounted to a wooden post with a microphone on top and a recording device inside. At the Post, we asked mothers one of two questions: If you are an expectant mother, what’s one thing you are most nervous about and one thing you’re looking forward to? Or as an experienced mother, what advice would you give to brand-new mothers?

I will admit, the maiden voyage of the Listening Post did not go as smoothly as I had hoped. Most of the challenges, however, were logistical and amount to lessons we have for next time — for example, it is imperative to have a recording device inside that is simple to use: the recording device provided to us by the Renaissance Theatre required multiple presses of the “record” button for it to work. Asking your users to press the button once, then once the red light is flashing to press it again, then once the red light is solid speak your piece, then press it once again to turn off proved far too complicated.

The Post also needed to stay plugged in at all times or else the creator of the Post would have to take it apart to reprogram the device. Of course, within five minutes of the Listening Post launch someone accidentally tripped over the power cord and unplugged the device. One panicked phone call and 45 minutes later, it was up and running again, but it was certainly a design flaw that should be worked out before future uses.

Other “notes for next time” include mindfulness about how to present questions. At first, I had created a sign presenting the two questions when mothers entered the Listening Post space, and expected them to remember their question by the time they got up to the Post. That was a mistake, and we quickly converted to making slips of paper mothers could carry with them and refer to as they spoke.

In addition to these challenges, we decided to make our lives difficult and take portraits of each mother to pair with a multimedia project I knew I eventually wanted to make.

Because there were so many variables to our Listening Post project, that left a lot of room for human error. But convincing mothers to use the Listening Post turned out to be easy when we offered a special door prize, and we had around 100 mothers’ names in our prize drawing.

The results

At the end of the day, I did not have 100 audio and portraits to choose from. Our logistical bumps meant only around 63 mothers figured out how to use it and produce usable audio clips — 30 were new mothers, and 33 were experienced mothers. Of those 63 mothers, only 39 had taken usable portraits. I learned all this after devoting an entire workday to parsing through the material and putting my project together.

I know what you’re thinking — almost 40 mothers is still a lot to work with. It certainly is, and I couldn’t even include everyone in my project. But a large sample size was necessary when accounting for audio or portrait errors.

And the audio/portrait pairs that did come to fruition were better than I could’ve expected.

Speaking their fears and hopes about parenthood requires a level of vulnerability I was nervous to ask of our Post users, but they really delivered. I wagered that people would be more apt to open up if they were speaking only into a microphone, instead of interacting with another person. I also designed the Listening Post space to allow for a bit of privacy.

One mother opened up about her experience with postpartum depression, and how the love for her child was something that grew over time instead of something she experienced right away. A few expectant mothers shared their nervousness over raising their children to be good human beings. One new mother shared her hope of raising her child differently than her parents raised her.

The combined anecdotes made for a much more powerful multimedia project that stirred emotions among those who viewed it. The video was viewed nearly 5,000 times on our Facebook page alone, and it gave us real insight for any other projects about motherhood we might pursue.

It also got me thinking: what else could I ask of my community with a Listening Post? Could I put it in a local coffee shop and ask for suggestions of future stories? Could I put it in the town square and ask passersby if their families have ever been affected by opioid abuse? The possibilities are endless.

The effects of engaging with local mothers has also rippled throughout the community. Of a total 14 vendors who responded to a survey sent by Richland Source, 50 percent said that compared to similar events, the Community Baby Shower was “the best ever,” and 92 percent of vendor respondents said they were able to make meaningful connections with potential clients.

As for the mothers, one respondent to the survey told us, “From one new mom to another this is something all new moms should experience. I am so very thankful for that baby shower. Please keep it going. The help and information was a blessing! THANK YOU!”

I firmly believe the community baby shower was a success because we as a news organization worked as a collaborator and congregator in the community. Don’t be afraid to be a part of the solution. Host the meetings if you need to. Start those conversations. Be a source of education and a lighthouse for information. And listen along the way.

Brittany Schock can be reached by email at brittany@richlandsource.com.

How Alabama Media Group uses simple text-messaging to listen to diverse voices

Photo credit: Connor Sheets / AL.com

Editor’s note: This is part of a collection of essays on how to reach new audiences by listening. We asked four journalists from across the country to explain approaches they’ve used to build trust with specific communities, particularly those who may be alienated or disengaged. Writing from Alabama, Connor Sheets describes how he piloted a way to use digital tools to stay in communication with communities he wanted to better serve.

For about an hour the morning of May 11, 2017, I stood outside the Jefferson County Jail in Bessemer, Ala., and interviewed a ragtag group of activists bailing women out of jails across the state in time for Mother’s Day. That night, I took pictures as some of the newly freed women broke down crying as they were reunited with their children in the basement of a church in downtown Birmingham.

On May 14, AL.com published my 800-word news story about the initiative. It was an interesting-enough piece about an effort that stood to benefit dozens of people across the state. But more importantly to me, it also represented the culmination of six months of work, as it was the first story I wrote based on a tip that came in via my newly launched, text message-based engagement initiative, the Deputy Program.

The program was working. I was hearing from underserved communities, and getting it operational had required minimal investment of time, resources or money.

As a reporter, I wanted to see if I could find a way to help news organizations cheaply and easily keep better tabs on what is going on in the communities they serve.

For many small or cash-strapped newsrooms, the prospect of rolling out a dedicated engagement or community journalism tool in order to broaden and diversify their coverage seems out of the question.

News outlets have made numerous attempts over the past 10 years to bring people in marginalized communities on board as contributing writers, community journalists or bloggers. But many efforts have floundered under the weight of the editorial muscle, resources and time needed to wrangle amateur contributors, edit and vet their work, and deliver it to news consumers.

While national publications have seen unprecedented drops in newsroom staffing over the past decade, local and regional newspapers have been hit hardest. In many places, daily newspapers once employed hoards of reporters who fanned out across states and beats, keeping close tabs on day-to-day concerns and big-picture issues alike. But much of that work is no longer being done, and of course some communities have never been covered as well as they ought to be.

As a reporter, I wanted to see if I could find a way to help news organizations cheaply and easily keep better tabs on what is going on in the communities they serve, including the subsets of those communities they would like to serve better.

So in 2016, I applied for and was granted a year-long fellowship with the University of Missouri’s Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute to explore an innovative way to gather and report news out of underserved communities and areas of the country that are experiencing gaps in news coverage.

How it works

I proposed the development of the Deputy Program, an open-source tool named for its key innovation, namely the fact that a curated team of community “Deputies” provides the insights, information and engagement that powers its success.

I knew that I wanted this new tool to require a minimal investment of time and resources from news organizations. It needed to be nimble, accessible by wide swaths of the public and narrowly focused. And I knew that I would need help developing this idea and bringing it to fruition.

So over the past year, I have brought the Deputy Program to life in my home newsroom in Alabama. It has become an additional conduit through which our journalists are made aware of a diverse range of story ideas, news tips and community concerns.

At its essence, the Deputy Program relies on an intuitive, text-message-based interface made possible by the great folks at GroundSource, which allows people to communicate directly with our newsroom, and through which we can ask questions and communicate directly with those same individuals.

Essentially, Deputies’ cell phone numbers are entered into GroundSource’s online platform, which automatically organizes them by name, location and other identifying information entered into the system.

Any Deputy can text tips, information and questions to the central AL.com Deputy Program phone number. And we can respond to them individually, or ask questions of any subgroup of Deputies in hopes of generating story ideas or leads for stories on specific beats or topics.

Occasionally we add new people to the list or delete folks who decide they no longer want to participate. It sounds like a lot, but once the initial list was entered into the system, I’ve had no trouble keeping in touch with Deputies in less than two hours per week.

But, unlike many community engagement or citizen journalism initiatives, the Deputy Program is not an open platform for anyone to dump information about their pet issues or obsessions. It instead relies on a curated group of community-minded, engaged folks who are trained as so-called Deputies either in person or over the phone.

Rather than being packaged and promoted by PR professionals, corporations or nonprofits, Deputies generally know the word on the street and can put information in the context necessary for us to do their stories and concerns justice.

Over the past eight months we have found that the optimal Deputies are people who are already paying attention to what’s going on in their communities, have long-established human networks within them, and are passionate about a wide range of topics, but do not hold any official offices or positions that drive or influence their relationships with their communities.

That can mean the stay-at-home dad who keeps up to speed with education, quality-of-life and transportation concerns. One AL.com Deputy works in a rural health clinic and hopes to bring attention to medical issues impacting the critically underserved populations she serves.

One of our most unique Deputies is a woman who was homeless for several years but has since gotten back on her feet. She was already using Facebook to try to raise awareness about issues impacting the homeless and urban poor in Birmingham. The Deputy Program can serve as a conduit for that kind of real-world knowledge and help bring attention to concerns that would likely otherwise fly under the media radar.

Training and onboarding a Deputy

Once potential Deputies are identified and accepted into the program, they each participate in a brief training session of five to 15 minutes, which can take place in person or via Skype or FaceTime. Putting faces to names seems to help ensure that Deputies stay committed to the program over the long-term, but Alabama is a big state, so it is not always possible to sit down with each person before bringing them on board.

The trainings are essentially crash courses about what we do as journalists and what Deputies can do to make it easier for me and my colleagues to follow up on a story idea, such as getting us names, addresses and other specific details or providing documents or photos.

Once they are brought up to speed, they are added to a master list of Deputies, and I send them each a text message welcoming them into the program. During the training sessions, I educate each of them on the way the text-message system works, so they know that they can send information and questions to us, and that we can do the same.

That has helped us to bolster our coverage of Alabama in ways that would have been much more difficult otherwise. When we want to know what’s going on in immigrant communities or what rural folks think about a political race, the Deputy Program can help us answer those questions. And the program has been particularly helpful when covering the notoriously difficult to reach prison population.

Challenges and solutions

Yet while the tool’s learning curve is short and it can have a major positive impact when deployed properly, we did have some struggles along the path to implementation.

Perhaps the most difficult part was finding the right people to serve as Deputies. We wanted to enlist people who understood their communities and were passionate about improving them, but who at the same time were not simply pushing personal or professional agendas.

That was a little harder to do than we expected, but we found that by talking to people about who they go to for information about their communities, we were able to meet and enlist dozens of people who fit that bill.

We also learned that there is a wide gulf between being interested in an idea and actually committing oneself to it over the long-term. As such, a significant percentage of people who were brought on as Deputies have since failed to engage with the tool.

By talking to people about who they go to for information about their communities, we were able to meet and enlist dozens of people who fit that bill.

If I were to launch the Deputy Program all over again, I would have paid greater attention to retention and incentives, key aspects of a sustained community engagement initiative. Events, gamification and other incentives can help sustain interest, as can simply making a concerted effort to maintain periodic individual contact with Deputies.

But in the end we learned a great deal through trial and error. While we aren’t swimming in groundbreaking story ideas and tips, we have managed to establish a network of folks across Alabama who reach out to us when they feel moved by an issue happening in their communities or their lives, and that has been very beneficial. We have the ability to ask questions of a wide range of people in a way that would otherwise be very difficult.

The Deputy Program is not the only way to better listen to communities, and there are a number of other options out there for newsrooms looking to increase engagement with underserved communities. But as I said at the outset, even if we just get an extra few solid story ideas each month out of the program, then it’s done its job, and with minimal expenditure of resources.

At the end of this year-long process, we have access to a vibrant, indispensable reporting tool that has allowed us to better connect with our readers and make our journalism relevant to them in exciting new ways.

Connor Sheets can be reached by email at csheets@al.com.

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