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.