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How a culture of listening strengthens reporting and relationships

Listen megaphone

Photo: Tim Pierce via Flickr

When Journal Star executive editor Dennis Anderson created a reader advisory board with residents of Peoria’s predominately African American South Side in 2014, he knew the paper had some work to do.

Regard for the Journal Star wasn’t particularly high among these residents of the central Illinois town; some said that the only time they saw a reporter show up was to cover crime or local charity efforts. And the neighborhood faces dramatic inequality, with higher rates of poverty than the rest of Peoria, which is more white and affluent.

So Anderson and his staff started listening.

Taking the lead and acting like a beat reporter, Anderson talked with people across the South Side, asking each to recommend five more people he should connect with. He formed an advisory board of representatives from the community, who began contributing their perspectives and ideas for the Journal Star’s coverage.

The Journal Star also began hosting monthly meetings throughout the neighborhood, welcoming locals to come and share their ideas and insights for stories that the newspaper should tell about their community.

Fast forward to 2018. Anderson says he now gets regular calls from people in the neighborhood who never would have dialed up the newspaper before, sharing tips and feedback on the newspaper’s coverage. His newsroom still hosts monthly meetings on the South Side, and sends an email to about 150 people in the neighborhood twice a month to update them on stories and remind them about the gatherings.

“We have gone from a neighborhood that didn’t trust us or think the newspaper cared about them to a very engaged group that keeps coming back, offers story ideas and has become fans of the Journal Star,” Anderson said.

News organizations large and small are sharing similar stories demonstrating the power of listening: The Ohio County Monitor in Kentucky launched a listening campaign at gathering spots in its rural community, as well as a “Community Contributors” initiative; dozens of newsrooms in Ohio are teaming up to explore the opioid crisis and the state’s economy with guidance from people across the state; and ProPublica reporters are getting stories and feedback from hundreds of women to inform their Lost Mothers series. Across the country, journalists are using deep and focused listening to build relationships with and between communities that had either lost trust in their reporting, or never had it to begin with.

The American Press Institute recently convened a group of these community-minded journalists, editors and nonprofit leaders who are pioneering strategies to use deep listening and dialogue.

Our goal for this gathering, held at The Tennessean in Nashville, was to tap the collective expertise of these innovators and discuss how journalists and supporting organizations can promote a greater culture of listening in newsrooms.

We identified practical opportunities for journalists to build trust, form new relationships, spark impact with their reporting and leverage these approaches for their own sustainability. This report recaps lessons we learned.

What do we mean by a ‘culture of listening’?

Journalists listen all the time; it’s a core part of the job. They regularly listen through interviews with sources — from experts to officials to community members — to get the facts and tell a balanced, accurate story.

But the listening-oriented practices we’re talking about are different from what journalists normally do.

When API says “listening,” we mean the process of seeking out the information needs, feedback and perspectives of the people in our areas of coverage. In particular, this emphasis on listening is meant to expand our attention to people and communities who feel alienated or have traditionally been marginalized by news coverage.

This approach is about treating citizens as “constituents, not consumers,” as summit participant Fiona Morgan of Branchhead Consulting has framed it. She has written about the idea in her work with News Voices, an initiative by Free Press to help communities have a stronger voice in local journalism.

API’s Culture of Listening Summit in Nashville, Tenn., convened community-minded journalists, editors and nonprofit leaders who are pioneering strategies for deep listening and dialogue.

One of the primary themes that drove our discussions in Nashville was prioritizing deep, mutually beneficial relationships with the public over creating content for our respective publications and broadcasts. An emphasis on listening can help newsrooms understand the information needs of people across their coverage areas first, and then orient their reporting with the goals and interests of these communities in mind.

By promoting a “culture of listening” in the news industry, we want to help more newsrooms thread these relationship-centric practices into the fabric of their organizations. While community engagement is often viewed as an extra practice that journalists have to make time for, our goal is to demonstrate how newsrooms can make it a core part of their jobs and their business.

What newsrooms gain from an emphasis on listening

When newsrooms start valuing their relationships with the communities they serve over the quantity of content they can produce, it shapes journalism for the better. And that focus on relationships is helping newsrooms have an impact and develop new opportunities for revenue and sustainability.

Earlier this year, API published four essays detailing examples of how listening can help newsrooms connect with audiences they don’t have, produced a report about how empathy can help newsrooms cover neglected communities, and hosted a Thought Leader Summit on newsroom strategies to grow revenue from readers.

Our summit in Nashville built on that foundation and explored how an emphasis on listening can help your newsroom forge new connections, get guidance on stories, and understand how people may feel misrepresented by your coverage.

Over time, supporting a culture of listening in your newsroom can help you form mutually beneficial relationships with people in the communities you serve and carve pathways for more human-centered reporting and support in the process.

However, listening alone is not enough. Newsrooms must demonstrate how what they hear changes their behavior, guides their coverage in responsive ways and opens up new routines that can make journalism more inclusive, participatory and, ideally, sustainable.

This report draws from ideas that emerged at our summit to provide a roadmap of how journalists can better use listening practices to strengthen their reporting and develop stronger, more valuable connections to the public.

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