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Sept. 1, 2017, 8:08 a.m.
Audience & Social

HuffPost is taking its reporters on a “listening tour,” seeking stories, new readers, data, and solidarity

“If we’re going to put new reporters in different regions, strategically where should they be? What will they be covering? What matters to these communities?”

HuffPost is taking its show on the road starting this month, with a bus tour of 25 cities across the U.S.

Since Lydia Polgreen became editor-in-chief of HuffPost (née The Huffington Post) this past January, she’s spoken widely about the ways in which the digital publication will be taking up the mantle of the metro tabloid, and represent the voices of people who feel left behind by powerful economic and political institutions.

The “Listen to America” tour is HuffPost’s most prominent effort this year to connect the largely New York- and D.C.-based news organization to non-coastal America. (Houston and Charlottesville are both on the itinerary.) In each city, HuffPost staff will pull in with a fully outfitted bus and interview residents about what’s been on their minds. It will partner with local media outlets in each city — ranging from tiny independents to Fox affiliates to public radio — to publish stories. Each city will host tailored events. It’ll also analyze all the interviews collected over the course of the seven-week tour, and arrive at a sort of dataset around “what’s keeping people up at night and what they feel hopeful about,” according to Hillary Frey, the new head of strategy for HuffPost, who conceived of and is overseeing the listening tour. (Staff traveling with the bus will also be specifically trained beforehand by psychologist Renee Lertzman to rethink how to conduct interviews.)

“As we work on our editorial strategy, the bus tour is a key part of that, as we figure out what we want to cover going forward and how we want to cover it. We also want the bus tour to give us a lot of feedback to think about that,” said Frey, who joined HuffPost in her new role shortly after Polgreen. “If we’re going to put new reporters in different regions, strategically where should they be? What will they be covering? What matters to these communities?”

The project is supported by an investment from Verizon’s Oath (Yahoo and AOL merged, and AOL owns HuffPost). A spokesperson declined to share financial details; Politico cited sources who said the tour would cost around $1 million.

I talked with Frey, with a spokesperson also on the line, about the complexities of collaborations with so many local players and what HuffPost hopes to concretely get out of its collaborations and meetings with people who live far from America’s media centers. Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, is below.

Shan Wang: I understand the broad strokes of this project, but visiting 25 cities on a bus with multiple staffers over several few weeks seems logistically extremely complicated. How did this get put together, who is going on the bus, what stories are in the works?

Hillary Frey: We have about 40 different people from the newsroom who will be doing rotations on and off with us. Essentially, we have a senior manager traveling for each of the seven weeks. The seniors do 10 or 11 days on, and then we overlap, so we’re cycling through people. Then we have a HuffPost staff that varies from six to eight, beefed up a little at the beginning — that staff changes each weekend.

We do have one person who is going for the entire duration of the tour. Our staff photographer Damon Scheleur is going to go for the entire tour, which is going to give him an amazing body of work to share with HuffPost.

We thought when we approached the staffing that we wanted this to be an opportunity to get people out in the field, especially people who don’t routinely get to do that. Our staff is made up a lot of editors, social producers, some of whom will be making their first real trip out into the world as part of HuffPost in a reporting capacity.

Renee’s training will include all of those people getting out on the road. Our goal is to make sure every single person out there gets the chance to interact with people as a producer, as an interviewer. When we started talking about doing this tour — and I had some experience doing more questionnaire-based projects — we really wanted to create an environment where people feel comfortable getting personal with us. The goal of Renee’s training is to give our staff skills in active listening and to learn how to approach conversations with prompts rather than hard questions.

We’re not going in and saying, “What do you think about this?” “What do you think about that?” We want some expertise in how you guide a conversation to help people open up about what matters to them, and what issues they want to talk about. We really want to make sure we’re listening, and we’re asking questions that allow us to listen and respond and get people to go deeper, rather than go through set questions one through five.

We will, after the fact, work with an outside party to analyze our interviews and extract some data from them, so we can see where people are talking about common themes. But we want those common themes to evolve naturally from our conversations, not from the direction of the questions we’re asking.

Wang: I want to get into the weeds a little more. So take, say, Odessa, which is a pretty big city, as an example. You’ll bus in, invite people to share thoughts in the mobile studio, and publish a piece with the local outlet you’ve chosen to partner with? And what else can we expect on the national and local levels?

Frey: Do you mind if I pick a different city? Memphis, for example.

One thing that’s common in each location, for the most part, there are two things we’re doing. In every location, we’re doing what’s called “activating.”

When we talk about staff, we have the HuffPost staff. But we also have an extensive six- or seven-person staff from our agency, Peak XV that’s handling the logistics of setup, our bus driving, our route. We as journalists are not doing that part. We’ve contracted with a firm that’s had extensive experience in political campaigns and knowledge of how to do advance work, permitting, all of that.

In each location, we are permitted to bring our bus, outfitted like a mobile studio. There’s a whole environment we pop up around the bus with tables, iPads, comfy chairs, swag, to invite people to come onto the bus and sit down with us for 10 minutes and tell us their story. In each location we do that for a minimum of four hours.

There are some places we go where we’ll spend longer — when we get to a place with a lot of news happening, for instance. In Albuquerque, we’re partnering with a school, and we’re going to be there for pretty much the whole day.

In each place, we’re making sure people are aware of who we are, showing them who HuffPost is, and making welcoming environments for them to come share with us. Our partners are helping promote this, but that is the core of the HuffPost project.

The editorial partnerships have a number of layers. In each location, we have a news partner. Those range from Fox affiliates to public radio stations to one-man-band nonprofits, to independent local news sites. We really tried to find partners that we felt would benefit from working with us and from our support and didn’t look so much to working with papers that were part of Hearst or Gannett or so forth. We looked for independent, nonprofit, and TV stations — because we don’t usually get to work with them.

We’re leveraging those partnerships for expertise on what matters to the community and doing a reported or supported piece of journalism with each partner. This is very tailored. For some partners, we’ve matched reporters. Others, we’re offering photo or video resources. It depends on the needs of the partner. We weren’t trying to shove an idea down their throats, that they have to work with us in this specific way. It was, we’re coming to your town, we want to support the work you’re doing, what are things you really want to cover that you could use extra resources for, and let’s work together on stories that matter to your community, that we can also share with the HuffPost community.

That was how the partnership started. The other thing we’re doing in these locations are forums and events. So in Memphis, our partner helped booked the venue, helped with the programming and bringing in the panelists, and we’re all together working on bringing in the audience. We’ve nailed down a lot of these events for the early part of the tour, and are working on tightening up some of the details on the latter half of the tour.

Wang: I know it might be slightly different in every city, but is HuffPost financing all of these activities, in addition to contributing reporting resources for the stories coming out of each city?

Frey: For the events, we’re handling venue fees if there are fees. When you go into these communities, you find that there’s a lot of support for putting on these events. We’re doing them in libraries, churches, book stores, banquet halls. We’re handling the logistical details and working on programming with our partners.

In terms of the editorial partnerships, we did stipends with each partner for the reporting, and then put staff resources against that as well.

What we wanted to avoid was parachuting in to tell a story out of these locations. From the very beginning when we made contact with partners, we collaborated on the idea, and then tried to figure out where we could plug in on their ongoing reporting. Every single outlet has staff devoted to the stories in one form or another.

Wang: So in terms of output, we’ll see a bunch of localized stories that are given a wider audience on HuffPost? How are you working through the tailoring of stories might need to work on a local and then a national level?

Frey: What’s interesting is, as we went through pitches from partners, one of the fascinating things to see was the natural diversity in the ideas, because they were all so unique to each area.

School vouchers is the hot debate in Fort Wayne. But it’s also a national issue. When we got those ideas and talked to partners about them, we would say, “We get that this is an issue of local importance; it’s also part of a national issue.” We’ve been working with partners on that.

Wang: I realize a listening tour is more open-ended, but what are the set goals you’re working towards? More than 20 longform pieces, a new section on HuffPost dedicated to stories coming out of the tour, a change in your overall editorial strategy?

Frey: The stories we’re doing with partners, we’ve been working on a new longer-form story template that these stories will roll out in. They’ll look more elaborate. This project gave us a good reason to push on having a beautiful new enterprise template.

The editorial output during the tour will be somewhat formidable. We have a lot of stories that we’ve been working on over the summer. We’ll be rolling out the partner stories. So, as we roll into, say, Des Moines, we will publish our partner story. We’re highlighting an unsung hero who’s done great work in the community who hasn’t been reported on before — our impact team has been working on that all summer, with pieces in the culture section.

There’s a lot of editorial work that will roll out over the next seven weeks while we’re on the road. Look, I’d love to interview a thousand people when we’re on the road; I don’t know whether or not that’s possible. Hundreds would be wonderful. I feel confident that in the time we’re allotting to this, and the effort we’re putting in with partners to get people to come down and be excited about this, we’ll be able to do that.

We’ll have all this amazing video and audio after all this. We want to look at all that work and see what it is that unites people, as opposed to thinking about the U.S. as a divided place. This summer, our agency visited in advance every location we’re going to, met with partners and talked to people in the community to start that listening process, to understand from the ground what the response would be to us coming into town, and what we should be focusing on when we arrive. Overall there was excitement and enthusiasm and a desire from people to be heard, and to dispel myths of their communities.

In Casper, Wyoming, for instance, that community is very frustrated that everyone thinks they’re these environmentally destructive coal miners. The coal industry supports their school system. But they’re true-believing environmentalists and conservationists. They want people to understand they aren’t one or the other. Their economy is dependent on this kind of work, but they also see themselves as custodians of our natural world.

We’re excited about going out and engaging and collecting these stories, because our advance work shows us people want to tell them. Showing commonalities is a big editorial theme.

We also want to really keep these local partnerships alive, figuring out how we can keep understanding what’s important to these communities, keep engaging with them, and keep elevating their stories, and how to make them national, as a way of also helping all of the country, and all of our readers, truly understand what’s happening across the country.

Wang: The “locals” you’re trying to reach out to and interview — these are people who haven’t heard of HuffPost? Or have heard of it but find HuffPost to be something they wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole because they have a certain perception about what you guys stand for? I guess I’m asking how much of this is going to also focus on trying to get more readers from non-coastal cities to read HuffPost more regularly in the end.

Frey: We’ve done some work here in the office, just looking via Facebook and other platforms where we have a lot of readers in these areas. There are always pockets of HuffPost readers everywhere, but we definitely hope we’ll have new people come down and engage with us. Overall, I can’t scientifically answer your question.

But we have an email alias, listening@huffpost.com, that comes to my inbox, and I read all of that mail. I went through about 1,200 when we announced the bus tour. The overwhelming reaction, and it wasn’t just from HuffPost readers, was “I saw that you’re coming to my town” and there was this appreciation: Some people said, “You can stay at my house!” Others said, “I live 40 minutes away in this tiny community, can you bring the bus to us?” Many people had helpful tips for places to go, or wanted to talk to us already about what’s going on in their communities: “When you get here, you have to talk about X or investigate Y.”

It was more excitement — “Someone is finally coming to listen to me.” If in the process, people get a sense of what HuffPost cares about — which really is what they care about — we hope that comes across and that people continue to want to engage with us.

Wang: I was just about to ask you more about the lasting impacts of the tour. After seven weeks, you’re going to use the information to think about new coverage areas and maybe reorganizing the site and staff resources?

Frey: Lydia got here in January, and I essentially came with her and started working on this project later in the spring. As we work on our editorial strategy, the bus tour is a key part of that, as we figure out what we want to cover going forward and how we want to cover it. We also want the bus tour to give us a lot of feedback to think about that. If we’re going to put new reporters in different regions, strategically where should they be? What will they be covering? What matters to these communities?

In that regard, this is an amazing opportunity to do a lot of work that people don’t normally get to do when they’re figuring out what to cover and where to find great stories.

We’re thinking about how to deploy reporting resources. The other thing is local partnerships. If these relationships are great, I hope we have more of them. Maybe we’ll have them in all 50 states. This is a pilot model for how to work together. As we know, often times this doesn’t work. We’ve put a lot of effort into trying to make this a great experience on both sides. It’s not without challenges, but we’re getting a lot done together. When we see what that looks like in real life and both in distributed work and in events, there could be a lot to share after that, a lot to be modeled after.

After we do a data analysis on our interviews, we’re going to have a lot more to look at. I think this will be a pretty impactful result. We’re not running a poll and giving people pre-written questions and multiple-choice answers. We are doing a completely open-ended survey of what’s keeping people up at night and what they feel hopeful about. That is a dataset I’m not aware of existing.

We want to take our qualitative work and extract some quantitative data out of it. We’re working with a partner on how to do that. That will be pretty awesome to unveil and share and useful for a lot of people.

There’s a lot of interest in this information. There could be interest in sharing this with Congress. Those are all things we’re trying to explore, different avenues of how we can share what we’re learning and make it relevant and useful not just to journalists but other nonprofit groups and government.

Wang: Are these cities locked then? Or will you visit other ones nearby the ones you planned to?

Frey: The dates we’ve published are locked. One thing is, when you work with a firm that’s done political campaigns, they would stop somewhere every day! We’re investigating taking the bus down to the border when we’re in Tucson to do something. We’ll probably take the bus to the Grand Canyon. We might hit some diners. Some of the feedback we’ve gotten has been, “You’re still going to pretty big places.” If you’re doing a public activation, you do have to go where there’s foot traffic, but we do have enough wiggle room in our schedule that we can do some on-the-fly stuff too and try to gather some voices outside the places we’re going.

POSTED     Sept. 1, 2017, 8:08 a.m.
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