How a culture of listening strengthens reporting and relationships
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.
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.
Identifying whom to listen to
To listen more deeply, newsrooms must first determine who should be the focus of their listening.
One of the first questions we asked participants at our summit in Nashville was: “Whom do you want to listen to more in your work?” We distributed Post-Its and had everyone write down specific individuals, groups or communities that they wanted to reach in their listening efforts.
Participants offered a range of rich examples, including: non-voting Texans who hope to better engage in discussions on state politics and policy; disenfranchised voters; service industry workers; Hispanic immigrant parents; rural progressives; people who distrust the national media; and low-income Detroiters.
This process helped the group ground our discussion with specific individuals and communities in mind. It’s a crucial exercise for any newsroom when mapping out strategies to better understand local information needs and build new connections.
Strategies for identifying whom you need to listen to
Your newsroom can use a variety of tactics to identify key communities and stakeholders whom you may not be reaching, who may have lost trust in your newsroom, or may not feel accurately or adequately represented in your reporting.
Below, we’ve outlined a few examples offered by participants at our Nashville summit.
Conduct an audit of your staff and sources. Newsrooms can set up processes to evaluate diversity in their reporting and among their staff to get a better understanding of groups who might be missing or misrepresented in their coverage.
One summit attendee suggested comparing newsroom demographics to the U.S. Census. Does your newsroom staff reflect Census demographics for the area you cover? Do the stories you tell proportionally represent the communities you serve?
Identifying possible gaps can point you to people to whom you need to be listening more. In its 2017 Newsroom Diversity Survey, ASNE partnered with Google News Lab to create a visualization that put newsrooms’ staff demographics side-by-side with Census data, highlighting many such discrepancies.
Another area to examine for imbalances in representation is sources. For example, does your newsroom quote more men than women, or rarely highlight people of color as experts?
Jodi Gersh, VP of engagement, says PRI now conducts an annual audit of both its staff and content to examine representation of gender, race/ethnicity and identity, and people with disabilities.
In its 2016 Inclusiveness Report, PRI neatly sums up the justification for this evaluation: “More than ever before, journalism and media organizations need to better reflect the diversity of our country to effectively and credibly tell the important stories of our world and our communities.”
Other public radio stations such as WHYY, KQED, KUT and KUOW have developed systems for tracking data on the diversity of sources in their news segments to get a better understanding of representation and adopt strategies that better reflect their communities in their broadcasts.
Evaluate the types and tone of stories about different communities you serve. In addition to auditing diversity of staff and sources, evaluating the types of stories you tell about various communities can help you understand possible inaccuracies in how you represent them. For instance, a recent survey by advocacy organizations Color of Change and Family Story found that the vast majority of news coverage pertaining to African American families portrayed them as overwhelmingly poor and dysfunctional.
It’s easy for reporters to misrepresent people in areas where they don’t have strong connections.”
Andrea Hart, director of community engagement for City Bureau, noted that many communities, particularly those of color, only see a reporter or read a story about themselves when something bad happens, such as a homicide or natural disaster — a sentiment shared by people in Peoria’s South Side before the Journal Star began its listening campaign. And even then, it’s easy for reporters to misrepresent people in areas that they don’t have strong connections with, simply by the language they use and the way they frame particular issues.
Understanding imbalances between how you cover communities and how they see themselves is crucial to building trust. Waliya Lari, formerly of WRAL, said that being out of touch with how people in different communities see themselves can be detrimental to trustworthy relationships, leading individuals in those communities to wonder, “If [the newsroom] isn’t getting stories about me right, how are they getting anything right?”
This work is at the core of Free Press’ News Voices project, which works to give communities a stronger voice in local news. Through these conversations the News Voices team gets a better sense of how participants feel represented — or misrepresented — by the media, and helps newsrooms use this feedback to reframe certain types of coverage, like crime reporting or local success stories, and build better relationships with those communities.
Assess your current (or former) base of subscribers and supporters. The Journal Star’s initiative to form a community advisory board with residents of Peoria’s South Side stemmed in part from the fact that just 5 percent of the newspaper’s subscribers came from a ZIP code representing that community.
Emily Goligoski of the Membership Puzzle Project talked about the learning opportunity from conversations with people who stopped subscribing or donating to your news organization. Ask them: What drove them away? How could your newsroom regain their support?
As we’ll discuss in greater depth later in this report, listening presents long-term revenue opportunities through new subscribers and supporters, which will require concerted efforts from your newsroom to more directly serve the communities currently missing from your audience.
Talk to the people who don’t like your coverage. One group at our Nashville summit suggested having conversations with your newsrooms’ most vocal critics, to understand the reasons behind their anger or mistrust.
David Plazas, opinion and engagement editor at The Tennessean in Nashville, has hosted several listening sessions with groups who feel particularly marginalized or misrepresented by the news, such as gun owners and young American Muslims. Their feedback has helped his newsroom understand nuances in its reporting, and how The Tennessean can tell stories that are more true to lived experiences.
Use asset mapping to understand information networks in your community. Many people trust and rely on sources of information beyond news organizations, and understanding how these sources operate can inform your listening. Andrea Hart of City Bureau and Fiona Morgan of Branchhead Consulting both advocate for using a process called asset mapping to get a better, fuller picture of local news ecosystems beyond traditional outlets. In this approach, journalists can set out to understand how information flows through informal networks, such as church groups, barbershops, local listservs and Nextdoor groups, to name a few.
By examining the information assets within a community, newsrooms can see where they have strong relationships and where they are lacking. DePaul University’s Asset-Based Community Development Institute offers a variety of high-level resources on understanding approaches to using asset-based practices in your community.
Key principles and ethics of deep listening
Listening can help news organizations inform and enrich their journalism. It also challenges reporters to pursue new and sometimes different relationships with people in their communities, going outside the typically transactional nature of journalism.
“Our current approach to listening, dialogue and engagement in general is episodic and sporadic,” said Linda Miller, director of network journalism and inclusion at American Public Media and Minnesota Public Radio. “It is content-driven, not values-driven. We use content to drive engagement and engagement to drive content, but these activities do not necessarily increase knowledge, curiosity, inclusion, trust, action, audience or revenue.”
The biggest barrier that Miller sees for newsrooms is a reluctance to measure success through the strength and number of connections in the community, rather than the content it creates.
Making this internal shift from content to connections may seem like a departure from newsrooms’ traditional approach. But ultimately, a newsroom with deep, extensive relationships throughout the communities it serves has more potential to get both stories and sustainable support from that community, as we’ll explore more deeply later in this report.
For newsrooms seeking to reorient toward relationship-building, there are several principles that can help you be more open, respectful and effective.
Don’t be extractive. Journalists and newsrooms routinely ask people to give them information, stories and support, but aren’t always clear about how they’re giving back beyond the story they’re working on.
Hearken’s Jennifer Brandel and Groundsource’s Andrew Haeg recently labeled this as acting like an “askhole” — making requests from the public to meet our own needs without bringing that information back in a way that’s useful to our audiences.
Listening involves a more public service mindset. It can lead to source cultivation and stories — the things many journalists want — but the larger goal is understanding what a community wants and needs, knowing that will lead to better journalism later.
By investing more time in listening, newsrooms can open doors ahead of time. They will have stories and connections that they may not have gotten without a willingness to listen and learn.”
As several participants said, it’s important to find creative ways to show up and listen to people in your community without a particular story in mind. We’ll dig more deeply into best practices for creating and finding spaces to listen in the next section.
In most newsrooms, journalists don’t often have time to spend in conversations that aren’t directly related to a story, and the news cycle demands that reporters gather quotes and information quickly. But by investing more time in listening, newsrooms can open doors ahead of time. They will have stories and connections that they may not have gotten without a willingness to listen and learn. This can break the cycle of being extractive.
Be transparent about your goals and gaps in your knowledge about a community. Especially when approaching communities your newsroom doesn’t have a relationship with, it’s important to be upfront about your intentions, what you’re looking for and how any input or information will be used. It’s common practice for journalists to identify themselves as reporters and explain what information they’re seeking, but this is especially important when attempting to build long-term relationships.
One participant at the Nashville summit said journalists should also be transparent about where they are in their personal learning process about the community they’re approaching. The public often appreciates the humility of journalists who both concede gaps in their knowledge and offer specific ways for members of a community to inform their reporting.
As P. Kim Bui explains in her report on empathy for the American Press Institute, journalists should do their research before approaching a community, but acknowledge that they’re not experts. Admitting what you don’t know and building in room to learn from the people you talk with can help journalists build trust, especially with communities who feel wronged or misunderstood.
Be aware of power dynamics and language. Journalists wield privilege and power through their platforms and can cause direct harm to communities at the center of their reporting. As Ruth Palmer writes, journalists’ megaphone and their ability to shape stories can cause newsrooms to be viewed by members of the public, especially in marginalized communities, as powerful institutions worthy of skepticism.
It’s critical to keep these power dynamics in mind and acknowledge them, and to display transparency, honesty and empathy in reporting, so people trust journalists not to abuse their platform.
Fiona Morgan encountered this dynamic firsthand as a local newspaper reporter working on Election Day: A community advocate whom she was attempting to interview began angrily chastising Morgan over her paper’s political coverage, which made Morgan realize that the advocate assumed she held a certain amount of power — more power than Morgan herself thought she had. The interaction made Morgan realize the importance of understanding the power dynamics at play between newsrooms and the people they cover, and how people in the community may view your influence as a journalist.
Language also matters when you interact with communities you don’t have strong relationships with. A recent survey by API found that many Americans aren’t familiar with journalism concepts and terms like “op-ed” and anonymous sources. As one group at the Nashville summit noted, even saying things like “off the record” and “on background” may not make sense to people you talk with. That can feel like the “journalism version of reading your rights,” as one participant called it, and affect the dynamics of your interaction.
Follow up is essential. Journalists must demonstrate accountability to the people they listen to, and show how they’re incorporating their insights, ideas and feedback.
Sarah Alvarez of Outlier Media and Emily Goligoski of the Membership Puzzle Project emphasized how much journalists can learn from customer service, an industry where it’s crucial to get back in touch with everyone who reaches out to you. Beyond simply listening to what someone has to say, Goligoski pointed out the importance of finding value in what you hear and making sure that the person feels heard and appreciated.
Journalists must demonstrate accountability to the people they listen to, and show how they’re incorporating their insights, ideas and feedback.”
Though maintaining one-on-one correspondence isn’t scalable for journalists, there are plenty of ways you can stay touch in with communities and keep them updated on how your reporting is addressing their needs and experiences.
The Journal Star sends emails twice a month to people from the South Side who have signed up to receive stories about their neighborhoods. Ashley Kang of The Stand in Syracuse cited a practice by the Journal Gazette in Fort Wayne, Ind., to invite people who had submitted a letter to the editor to a big picnic hosted by the newsroom, as a way to thank them for their contributions.
Communicating how your newsroom is actively responding to the needs and ideas of the people you’re listening to is also a key pillar of any good membership strategy, as the Membership Puzzle Project outlines in its Guide to Audience Revenue and Engagement.
Don’t be too defensive of criticism. John Pettus, founder of online public discourse tool Fiskkit, said that many newsrooms don’t want to open their content up to criticism. If your newsroom writes off or doesn’t respond to basic criticism, however unfounded it may be, that can send signals to your audience that you don’t care about their input.
Though it can sometimes be frustrating, listen to what your audience and community is saying in response to your reporting, talk publicly about what you could do to address their concerns, and let them know how you incorporated their feedback, or explain why you made certain choices.
At WCPO in Cincinnati, for instance, Mike Canan and his team anticipated criticism from the public about their investigation into accountability for local law enforcement and wrote a piece articulating their editorial process and reasoning. Joy Mayer, director of the Trusting News project, detailed several examples of how newsrooms are being more transparent about their work and responding to questions from their communities.
Not all communities want to listen or be listened to by journalists. Journalists are often “aggressive listeners” and force people to talk about complicated or troubling issues even when they may not be ready. Some people may be openly antagonistic toward journalists and don’t appreciate what they see as outsiders “parachuting” into their community.
Monica Guzman, director of The Evergrey in Seattle, cited examples of closed groups or communities on social media that benefit from being able to have frank, empowering conversations that could suffer from being brought into the mainstream by journalists. In line with the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics, journalists should consider how their efforts to listen may not be in the best interest of a particular group or community, and work to minimize harm from their reporting.
Finding or creating spaces for listening
From Facebook groups to baby showers, participants at our Nashville summit offered examples of creative and compelling ways journalists can be present in existing community spaces, or design new opportunities to listen to different communities.
Finding the right spaces to listen
A common refrain from listening-focused journalists, and community engagement advocates in general, is to go where people already are. People in the community you’re trying to reach already have spaces where they gather, routines they follow and sources of information they trust.
A key part of the Listening Post Collective’s playbook encourages journalists to get out into the community, identify events and places where information is already being shared and “catch people in their daily comfort zones.” Church services, libraries, farmers markets and even Little League games can be prime places for journalists to have conversations and hear what people are interested in — ideally without a particular story preconceived.
Sam Ford and Andrea Wenzel worked with Dustin and Lee Bratcher of the Ohio County Monitor in rural Kentucky on a listening tour of “liars’ tables” in the county — informal gathering places in general stores and diners where people come to catch up and share information. By visiting with local residents in these spaces, the group sought to establish new connections in the hopes of eventually driving more backers to their recently launched subscription model for the Monitor.
However, just showing up isn’t always the right way to go. Getting community leaders’ input on where might be ideal for you to have conversations is a good way to start. Creating an asset map, as we mentioned in section one of this report, can help you identify the people who can introduce you to more intimate spaces.
Get community leaders’ input on ideal spaces for conversations.”
Strong partnerships are another effective way to earn access to community spaces. For instance, teaming up with ethnic media publications and organizations that serve immigrant communities can help you reach groups who may otherwise be skeptical of engaging with your newsroom, and can even help you overcome language barriers. Daniela Gerson and Carlos Rodriguez offer a variety of lessons and best practices for forming mutually beneficial partnerships with ethnic media in a report series for API.
Nashville Public Radio’s Tony Gonzalez says his station has learned a lot about the importance of partnerships through its innovative podcast Versify, where poets interview people at local events and write a poem on the spot about their story. Teaming up with community organizations allows the station to have a strong presence at their events and reach people who are not traditionally represented in their broadcasts.
Getting out of the office when you’re responding to content demands can be a challenge, but it doesn’t always have to take extra time in your day. Several newsrooms have reporters hold meetings throughout their community, whether it’s a coworking space, local organization, or somewhere else that’s central to the people they’re trying to connect with.
The Tennessean went as far as to hold their editorial board meetings on a public bus line, not just to get a firsthand view of public transportation, but to invite conversation with fellow riders about what they’d like to see improved.
Sarah Alvarez of Outlier Media cited the work of Imani Mixon, a producer and trainer for Michigan Radio’s podcast MorningSide 48224, a platform for community members to share and produce their own stories. Mixon works out of U-SNAP-BAC, an organization dedicated to housing assistance and development in the community. Having a direct connection and buy-in from an organization with such an extensive local network (and more than 20 years working the neighborhood) has helped her make new connections, she says.
While face-to-face opportunities often make for more personal exchanges, journalists can also tap into online communities across social media and other platforms to find places where people are already talking digitally.
Whether it’s a LinkedIn group, a Facebook group, or a hashtag, you can find spaces that are designed specifically by and for different communities and ask to join as a listener, being mindful of the spaces you’re entering and the rules — informal or formal — that may govern the conversation. Mark Frankel, a social media editor at BBC News, recently wrote about the ethics, challenges and opportunities for journalists in such peer-to-peer channels for discussion online.
Cristina Kim, former engagement and collaborations manager for Reveal, joined several different closed Facebook groups last year for women of color working in tech, to hear their stories and help inform Reveal’s series on diversity in Silicon Valley. Kim’s participation in these digital conversations led to new sources for reporting by Sinduja Rangarajan and Will Evans, and even an in-person listening session with women of color in tech, that was turned into an audio segment for the Reveal podcast.
Reporters can also use data sources to identify community information needs and areas that are ripe for more digging. In Detroit, Alvarez looked at local data from United Way’s 211 line and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to see what people were complaining about in their area the most. She saw that housing was by far the biggest topic, prompting her to focus her reporting for Outlier on the issue.
Creating new spaces for listening
Along with tapping into existing communities as a means of listening, newsrooms can also think of themselves as conveners of conversation and design opportunities for people to weigh in on specific issues, online and off.
A go-to favorite of newsrooms is hosting a panel discussion, Q&A or forum about a specific topic they’ve reported on. But can you consider more creative, democratic or fun ways to invite people to participate and share insights?
Brittany Schock, a reporter for Richland Source in Ohio who has worked on stories about the local infant mortality rate, came up with the idea to host a Community Baby Shower, connecting mothers and mothers-to-be with community and educational resources for keeping their babies healthy. In the process of organizing the event, Schock built relationships with multiple community organizations, gathered dozens of stories from local mothers to inform her reporting, and established new connections among the 500 people who attended.
If your newsroom is hosting its own event, Fiona Morgan of Branchhead Consulting expressed the importance of making sure the venue you choose will serve as a safe and welcoming space for all participants. Is the location accessible to the people you’re inviting? Are you hosting at a time or day of the week that can accommodate their work schedules?
Even things like the food you bring can have significance. For example, at a Free Press event Morgan hosted in New Jersey that included members of a group focused on workers’ rights and wage theft, she made sure the caterers they were using were not on the group’s list of bad actors. Morgan says this helped demonstrate that Free Press was being intentional in their efforts and built deeper trust ahead of the event.
Partnerships can also open up new possibilities for venues and creative ideas for events centered on listening.
In Dallas, an original partnership between the Dallas Morning News, the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, and other local organizations has led to the annual Dallas Festival of Ideas, where local innovators offer new proposals to improve the city. These events, rooted in listening to creative ideas from the community, have sparked tangible projects, including a series of conversations on equity, race and justice.
Partnerships can open up new possibilities for venues and creative ideas for events centered on listening.”
Digital platforms and channels are another prime way newsrooms can create opportunities for listening and dialogue. Creating new Facebook groups has been a successful tool for inviting conversation around a particular topic. Spaceship Media has hosted a range of conversations in closed Facebook groups, from immigration to the 2016 election, and invited a diverse mix of people and perspectives, facilitating new insights and discussion that could fuel reporting.
Last year, Spaceship Media worked with AL.com to host a conversation among teachers in Alabama about closing the state’s achievement gap between black and white students.
SMS-based tools like Groundsource also offer direct, personal ways for people to share their stories and thoughts with newsrooms. Reveal built a new SMS tool called Amplify that allowed listeners of their podcast to text in while listening and ask questions that they wanted reporters to answer. Reporters and members of Reveal’s audience and engagement team corralled submissions and got answers to some of the top questions.
Reach NC Voices, a statewide project dedicated to real-time surveys of North Carolinians, is also working to blend a variety of digital engagement tools as an engine for listening and meeting information needs. The Reach team is developing a dashboard that integrates email, SMS and other digital interactions with the public to provide more tailored, relevant information to individuals who respond to callouts and surveys.
Listening and dialogue initiatives can also bridge online and offline venues. In Bowling Green, Kentucky, the Daily News teamed up with the American Assembly at Columbia University and Pol.is, an interactive survey platform, to launch the Bowling Green Civic Assembly in February 2018. The group started by using Pol.is to solicit and evaluate statements from people of Bowling Green on what they wanted to see change in their city. After the initial survey campaign, the Civic Assembly hosted in-person conversations and workshops to discuss the results and engage local officials on opportunities for change.
100 Days in Appalachia is also launching a listening and dialogue series that bridges online and offline discussion. Inspired from a breakout group at our Nashville summit, the organization will host monthly “Sunday Suppers” that bring diverse groups of people together in different parts of Appalachia through in-person gatherings and online forums using tools from the Coral Project.
To keep people coming back and engaging in the spaces your newsroom creates and facilitates, it’s critical to think holistically about the community you’re building, and make sure the goals and rules of participation are clearly stated. Along with its tools for listening and conversation, the Coral Project has a wealth of guides and case studies that can help newsrooms develop and maintain successful communities.
Optimizing your reporting workflow for listening
Faced with shrinking newsrooms and often increasing responsibilities, finding the time to listen and build relationships can seem like a luxury that most reporters don’t have. The key is finding ways to thread these practices into the fabric of your reporting. Listening can become a core part of your process, not an extra thing you have to fit into your to-do list.
From a leadership perspective, Sandra Clark, vice president for news and civic dialogue at WHYY in Philadelphia, emphasized the importance of integrating a community-centered approach into the culture of the newsroom. “We have to embed community into what we do,” said Clark. “It must be something that is inside of us, not outside of us.”
Listening can become a core part of your process, not an extra thing you have to fit into your to-do list.”
One group at our Nashville summit discussed the need to articulate how a deep listening mindset fits into the overall newsroom strategy and individual duties of staff. David Plazas of The Tennessean advocates for establishing new routines for the newsroom and modeling ideal practices. For example, Plazas’ habit of riding the bus weekly and listening to people on public transit became part of his routine, and helped inform The Tennessean’s focus on infrastructure.
Finding a sustainable routine and rhythm is also core to the success of Hearken’s model, which is rooted in helping newsrooms source stories through questions and contributions from the public. By dedicating different reporters to answering these questions and incorporating them into the story budget, listening and responding to your audience becomes part of the newsroom’s process.
Tom Huang said the Dallas Morning News created an “early adopter” team to help test and launch their Hearken-powered series Curious Texas. Under the direction of engagement editor Hannah Wise, they enlisted a small team of reporters to start taking reader questions and reporting stories from them. The team was able to show success quickly by touting metrics that showed how well the stories performed online.
Huang attributes the success of Curious Texas to having an evangelist such as Wise to spearhead the initiative, along with an early adopter team that could rapidly demonstrate proof of concept and share the positive results with the wider newsroom.
Julia Haslanger of Hearken says that having the public point you in the direction of the stories and topics they want to know more about can help newsrooms justify dedicating more resources for a particular project. She cited the Chicago Tribune’s significant investment in creating a guide to the city’s Chinatown on the basis that their readers overwhelmingly asked for it.
In Peoria, the Journal Star built community meetings on the city’s South Side into a monthly routine, and regularly finds opportunities for new content. For instance, at a meeting in October 2017 during the height of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, participants asked what the newspaper was doing to cover the #MeToo movement. The conversation led to a series of podcasts where women and men from Peoria had in-depth discussions about their experiences with sexual assault.
Overcoming internal barriers to deep listening
Journalists also often run up against internal barriers, such as content demands or skeptical leadership. Making the case for more practices rooted in listening can be a tough sell, but low-risk experiments can help you gain examples of success that build leverage for larger projects, said Mike Canan, senior director of content strategy at E.W. Scripps Co.
Identifying particular solutions or ideas that clearly meet leadership goals and don’t take a huge resource commitment is a good way to start. For instance, try hosting a small event as part of a story you’re working on and set measurable goals that let you show how it benefited your reporting.
Or it could be as simple as asking leadership to allow reporters to devote a certain number of hours each week to a specific event or community they want to engage with. The key is being clear about goals for your experiment, articulating successes and outlining how you could take the idea further if you get positive results.
Planning for the long term
It’s also important to plan for the long term as you approach reporting on specific topics or take on new projects, and consider your newsroom’s capacity to listen and engage over time.
As Tasneem Raja, executive editor of The Tyler Loop said, your newsroom may want to move on from a particular topic, but doing so can signal to communities that you don’t care about that issue anymore. Especially as you launch new initiatives or reporting projects, be transparent with the public about the amount of time you’re planning to spend, how long you’re able to stay on the beat and what they can expect.
Since covering an issue or maintaining a reporting initiative for an extended period isn’t realistic for most newsrooms, you could consider ways to let the community carry the project forward if there’s interest. “Your newsroom doesn’t have to retain control over products and conversations indefinitely,” Raja said.
As you meet with different people and communities, offer clear opportunities for how they can connect with you and your newsroom over time.”
For example, Raja launched a “Taco Tour” of Tyler as a fun entry point to get a diverse group of residents talking about serious issues such as segregation, history and local development over food.
The Tyler Loop took applications from locals who were interested in participating in the tour and launched a small crowdfunding campaign to cover the cost of meals. After the official Taco Tour went on hiatus, Raja said that participants have talked about keeping the idea alive and organizing their own potlucks. Thinking about the possible long-term value of a particular project or initiative can be helpful in both gaining participation from community members and extending its shelf life.
As you meet with different people and communities, offer clear opportunities for how they can connect with you and your newsroom over time. Free Press created a guide for community members who want to have more of a voice in local news that articulates key concepts about journalism and best practices for people to stay connected, even when the journalist may not be the one reaching out.
Roles that sustain a culture of listening
If newsrooms truly want to support a culture of listening, leadership should think about how the skills, roles and makeup of the staff need to change and evolve.
Diversity among newsroom staff, a longstanding and persistent issue in the industry, becomes even more imperative. Having a variety of backgrounds and perspectives represented will help build your newsroom’s capacity to listen.
Participants at our Nashville summit said part of the problem is newsrooms’ exclusive hiring practices and tendency to undervalue nontraditional experience.
Sandra Clark, vice president for news and civic dialogue at WHYY in Philadelphia, said newsrooms often automatically overlook people who don’t fit a particular journalistic mold. “Our job descriptions are written to exclude whole classes of people, requiring certain education and experience that not everyone has access to,” said Clark.
Retention is also a huge problem. Even when journalists of color or people with nontraditional journalism backgrounds are hired, both Clark and Michelle Holmes of the Alabama Media Group say that newsrooms often aren’t equipped to accommodate their ideas and give space for them to apply their unique skill sets.
Linda Miller of American Public Media said newsrooms must figure out ways to not only accommodate new talents and skills, but recognize, appreciate, cultivate and prioritize them.
Having a variety of backgrounds and perspectives on staff can build your newsroom’s capacity to listen.”
This may require newsrooms to rethink their core values and create entirely new roles within newsrooms that are directly geared toward listening and building deep, reciprocal relationships with communities of all types. A group at our Nashville summit brainstormed a long list of possible job titles for these roles, including facilitator, bias auditor, life coach, chief listening officer, director of power transfer, story weaver, community host and organizer.
Along with emphasizing diversity and incorporating new roles and experiences, newsroom leaders should think about internal training for employees that could support active listening, mindful facilitation and empathy.
As P. Kim Bui writes in her API report, more diverse newsrooms do not automatically reflect an array of communities in their reporting. Journalists across the newsroom should be able to practice more empathetic journalism and understand people with different backgrounds. She cites practices from Keith Woods, vice president for newsroom training and diversity at NPR, that help build reporters’ capacity for empathy, including getting reporters to challenge their assumptions and value anyone they approach.
In her recent Solutions Journalism Network essay, Complicating the Narratives, journalist Amanda Ripley cites how trainings in dispute resolution helped her see how journalists should open themselves up to new disciplines, including psychology, that seek to understand human behaviors and motivations.
Organizations like the National Coalition for Deliberation and Dialogue also have a wealth of resources that can help journalists host more productive conversations in and with their communities.
Along with creating roles geared toward listening and building deep, reciprocal relationships with communities … newsrooms should think about internal training for employees that could support active listening, mindful facilitation and empathy.”
Another challenge for newsrooms in sustaining a culture of listening is putting the weight on specific people. Projects, workflows and relationships rooted in engagement are often linked to individuals within an organization and can fall apart when they leave. And the burden of covering specific communities often falls to reporters who are from those same communities, as Bui points out.
Some participants said one solution is for newsrooms to promote and communicate core values, both internally and externally, that bake in listening-focused practices across the newsroom and make the staff as a whole more equipped to build and maintain relationships. As we covered in the last section, this requires weaving listening-centric processes into overall newsroom roles and workflows so that they are not reliant solely on one or two individuals within an organization.
Threading these processes and values into your organization is also a key step in pursuing new opportunities for sustainability that are rooted in listening and relationships.
How listening can benefit your business model
Much of the discussion on listening and relationship-building focuses on trust and how newsrooms can forge deeper connections with communities who may feel misrepresented, marginalized or misled by the newsroom’s coverage. But how does a culture of listening help a news organization’s bottom line?
Many summit participants admitted they had more work to do to demonstrate listening’s connection to revenue, though a growing body of evidence points to the value of a relationship-centric model. Over time, stronger relationships with distinct communities that newsrooms serve can help grow revenue and contributions from those same communities.
Take the approach that Hearken employs, for example. By helping newsrooms center their reporting around the questions and curiosity of their audience, they’ve produced examples demonstrating how the approach leads to higher on-site engagement for stories created out of audience questions.
Over time, stronger relationships with communities that newsrooms serve can help grow revenue and contributions from those same communities.”
For instance, a study with Bitch Media found that readers who connected with their newsroom through Hearken, asking questions and voting on topics for the newsroom to report on, were five times more likely to become paying subscribers.
Using the “funnel” approach, listening to specific communities may help deepen relationships with more people at the “top” of the funnel — those who only rarely or occasionally engage with a news outlet’s content. In turn, establishing those relationships increases the likelihood that individuals will become a subscriber or member.
For instance, WBEZ has used Hearken’s tools to capture more than 10,000 new email addresses from people who asked questions they wanted the newsroom to answer. These new contacts can be an asset for newsrooms to both boost traffic and move potential subscribers through the audience funnel through sustained communication and engagement.
These deeper relationships with more people from your community may also help your newsroom generate other revenue. For example, they may appeal to new advertisers or allow for different sponsorship opportunities online or in print. Listening may also create new, different audiences for events, which in turn could attract fresh sponsors or advertisers.
The Membership Puzzle Project also has produced extensive documentation of a variety of audience-centric approaches to revenue for newsrooms that are intricately linked to building deeper relationships with the communities they serve. MPP’s Guide to Audience Revenue and Engagement details how listening in the form of audience research is an essential step to understanding the needs and motivations for potential supporters.
For many newsrooms, particularly nonprofit and public media, sparking real-world impact is a core goal that’s central to funding. Listening to key stakeholders and communities most affected by particular stories or issues can help newsrooms better understand both how they can empower the public more directly with their reporting and track the ways that it sparks action.
In a piece outlining ideas for how newsrooms can think about desired goals and impacts of their work, Julia Haslanger and Stephanie Snyder from Hearken assert a positive feedback loop that can emerge from communicating changes and value sparked by your journalism, particularly stories that are rooted in contributions from the public.
Tracie Powell, a senior fellow with Democracy Fund, also wrote recently about the revenue opportunities that arise when newsrooms bring concrete value to specific communities and help them solve problems in their everyday lives.
Executive Editor Dennis Anderson said the Journal Star hasn’t seen a notable increase in subscriptions from their efforts to build relationships with residents of Peoria’s South Side, but he says they have seen an increase in traffic overall. Regardless of the numbers, Anderson is committed to the time and effort that the Journal Star has spent growing its relationships in the neighborhood. And it’s a model that any newsroom could replicate to build trust with communities through sustained listening and responding to information needs.
WDET, a public radio station in Detroit, is also exploring how journalism that is rooted in listening and community engagement, such as its “Framed by WDET” series, produces value that goes beyond monetary contributions. Courtney Hurtt, WDET’s associate director of product development and business operations, is rethinking what alternative forms of support can look like, including donations of time and space that can help newsrooms reach new stakeholders.
While conversations at the summit emphasized how focused listening practices can improve journalism in the public interest, many participants stressed the importance of tying listening and engagement to revenue and growth opportunities. These are just a few of the emerging efforts that are doing just that, and we’ll have more recommendations in the months to come from API’s growing work on reader revenue.