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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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