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How to find or create spaces for listening to people

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.

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