The year of listening

“Our addiction to scale and its primary fuel, social media, have created the illusion of expanding reach while actually eroding what made us indispensable in the first place: our role as trusted guides to a rapidly changing world.”

This will be the year when newsrooms invest in listening.

For the past decade-plus, the mirage of digital sustainability has lured newsrooms deeper into the desert, devoting diminishing resources to chasing clicks.

andrew-haegNot only have the digital dimes not added up, but our addiction to scale and its primary fuel, social media, have created the illusion of expanding reach while actually eroding what made us indispensable in the first place: our role as trusted guides to a rapidly changing world.

To rebuild trust as the pillar of our brands, a few key newsrooms this year will make a journalistic and business argument for listening — even though it’s hard to measure cleanly on Chartbeat. They’ll do it because they know that building loyalty and trust requires tuning into the concerns and voices of the whole community.

“The thing about listening,” some bold newsroom leader will say, standing atop a desk addressing the newsroom, “about really listening, is that it’s not soft. It’s not a kind of nice thing to do when you have extra time. If you do it right, it will be the hardest thing you’ll ever do. And make no mistake: The future of this newsroom, the future of our democracy even, depends on it.” A scrappy young up-and-comer will nudge her colleague: “Whaddya think?” she’ll say, with a conspiratorial smile.

Emboldened by election postmortems urging better listening, inspired by Spotlight, trained in new tools and techniques, and stoked to pioneer new forms of listening-first investigative journalism, the duo works deep into the night, tipped over Chinese takeout, bleary-eyed, adrenaline-fueled, writing as they go a new playbook comprised of equal parts data journalism, community outreach, crowdsourcing, and investigative journalism.

They print and post handmade signs in grocery stores and truck stops: “What should we know?” with a phone number to text or call. They FOIA 311 data, download 211 data from the United Way, use Splunk and IFTTT and other tools to trigger alerts when key community datasets are updated. They hold town hall forums, set open office hours at local coffee shops and diners, and form key partnerships with community organizations to invite underserved communities into the conversation. They build a community of hundreds who ask questions and vote on which ones get answered, get texts with updates on the newsgathering progress and ongoing opportunities to share their concerns and stories. The community feed that develops is rich, authentic, and often shockingly prescient.

A year later, the same editor who threw down the listening gauntlet will stand atop the same desk, addressing a breathless newsroom to announce that they’ve won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. The official citation highlights the resourceful, community-driven approach that led the investigation, which “demonstrated the power of listening to ensure journalism serves the needs of the whole community, drawing out otherwise hidden information and experiences, and building reciprocal relationships of trust and loyalty.”

Other journalists, inspired, will adopt these tactics. The communities they build and engage will become seed stock for newsroom-wide engagement efforts. And these, in turn, will help their news outlets speak as a genuine proxy for the community — left, right and center — at a time when people need more than ever a voice they can trust — that feels like it’s theirs, really — amid a deluge of propaganda, made-up crap, and news passing as entertainment.

Andrew Haeg is CEO of GroundSource.

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