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Sept. 4, 2018, 10:59 a.m.
Audience & Social

A horde of engagement evangelists walk into a newsroom.

There’s no punchline — they just all listened to each other. The American Press Institute gathered representatives from three dozen news organizations to brainstorm about deep listening strategies and how journalists can continue to build relationships with their audiences. A report from media consultant Cole Goins, formerly of Reveal and the Center for Public Integrity, shares the lessons from that gathering (yes, there was lots of l i s t e n i n g involved) and how you can build those strategies into your own “culture of listening.”

Here’s how the group defines that culture of listening, no Merriam-Webster dictionary included:

When API says “listening,” we mean the process of seeking out the information needs, feedback and perspectives of the people in our areas of coverage. In particular, this emphasis on listening is meant to expand our attention to people and communities who feel alienated or have traditionally been marginalized by news coverage.

Here are some highlights from the gathering (read all the takeaways in the full report here:

  • Ask for networking recommendations: Starting in 2014, executive editor Dennis Anderson met with individuals from his readership at the Peoria Journal Star and asked each one to recommend five more people he should connect with:

    He formed an advisory board of representatives from the community, who began contributing their perspectives and ideas for the Journal Star’s coverage. The Journal Star also began hosting monthly meetings throughout the neighborhood, welcoming locals to come and share their ideas and insights for stories that the newspaper should tell about their community.

    Fast forward to 2018. Anderson says he now gets regular calls from people in the neighborhood who never would have dialed up the newspaper before, sharing tips and feedback on the newspaper’s coverage. His newsroom still hosts monthly meetings on the South Side, and sends an email to about 150 people in the neighborhood twice a month to update them on stories and remind them about the gatherings.

  • Auditing your staff, your sources, and and even what assets are in your community: Each year, PRI conducts an audit of its staff and its work to evaluate what kind of people are quoted — and who isn’t. Other public radio stations have also created mechanisms to track the diversity of individuals represented in their broadcasts.

    Participants also suggested asset mapping, or sketching out the flow of information through different community hubs like church groups, barbershops, Nextdoor groups, and more to get a better sense of why people trust these groups and how they are communicating information.

  • Talking to your ex-fans: If someone subscribed to you once, chances are they might do it again. But why did they cancel their subscription? Two participants advocated for ways to mine the minds of those how have left or those who just outright dislike an organization’s coverage.

    Emily Goligoski of the Membership Puzzle Project talked about the learning opportunity from conversations with people who stopped subscribing or donating to your news organization. Ask them: What drove them away? How could your newsroom regain their support?

    David Plazas, opinion and engagement editor at The Tennessean in Nashville, has hosted several listening sessions with groups who feel particularly marginalized or misrepresented by the news, such as gun owners and young American Muslims. Their feedback has helped his newsroom understand nuances in its reporting, and how The Tennessean can tell stories that are more true to lived experiences.

  • Not being an ‘askhole’: Coined by Jennifer Brandel of Hearken and Andrew Haeg of GroundSource, the gathering drove home the point of engaging without being extractive:

    In most newsrooms, journalists don’t often have time to spend in conversations that aren’t directly related to a story, and the news cycle demands that reporters gather quotes and information quickly. But by investing more time in listening, newsrooms can open doors ahead of time. They will have stories and connections that they may not have gotten without a willingness to listen and learn. This can break the cycle of being extractive….

    Though maintaining one-on-one correspondence isn’t scalable for journalists, there are plenty of ways you can stay touch in with communities and keep them updated on how your reporting is addressing their needs and experiences.

    The Journal Star sends emails twice a month to people from the South Side who have signed up to receive stories about their neighborhoods. Ashley Kang of The Stand in Syracuse cited a practice by the Journal Gazette in Fort Wayne, Ind., to invite people who had submitted a letter to the editor to a big picnic hosted by the newsroom, as a way to thank them for their contributions.

  • A culture of listening also includes being empathetic in your reporting, as an API report from P. Kim Bui noted in the spring.

    Want more specific examples? Find them here.

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