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2020
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7

The year we operationalize community engagement

“That’s left us in a position where we’re attracting new audiences but we have no way to build an ongoing relationship with them and eventually ask for their support.”

2020 is the year newsrooms need to get serious about operationalizing all the hard work we’ve done to engage new communities.

“Engagement” is a catch-all term, used to describe everything from social media marketing to crowdsourcing a story. At its best, engagement means narrowing the gap between your newsroom and the people you serve by increasing transparency, working with the community to shape your reporting, and thinking differently about story selection, framing, and distribution. Essentially, it’s an effort to ensure that the journalism you’re producing is actually useful to the people you’re trying to reach.

Here at KPCC, L.A.’s NPR station, we’ve been challenging our own assumptions about the definition of “news,” including who it’s for and how we find it. We got started with a series of experiments to design journalism for people who have traditionally been overlooked by public media.That sent us into communities with ears open for what kind of information people need versus the kind we think they should want. We’ve also challenged our journalists to pursue beats that are both for and about the communities they’re covering.

There’s no question that we’re doing better journalism as a result. We’re also providing services we never could have imagined years ago. We’ve created a texting service for curious voters and offered census and data training for ethnic and in-language journalists. Our early childhood education team is working alongside parents and caregivers to build a traveling photography exhibition. We’ve mailed informational postcards to households we identified as potentially benefiting from our reporting, knowing they might not find us otherwise.

In a short period of time, we’ve evolved from an NPR radio station to a civic news institution that operates on multiple platforms simultaneously. But while we know how to go on air for a pledge drive and lay out the case to support us, expanding our fundraising beyond broadcast radio has been challenging.

This isn’t just a KPCC issue. Other newsrooms trying to operationalize community engagement into their business model are also struggling. What do I mean by that?

Like us, they’re finding that while they’ve transformed editorial strategy, their technological infrastructure has not kept up. For example, we don’t have a systematic way to capture the new relationships we’re building with community members outside of radio. Even as we create more touch points with our communities, there’s no automated way for us to track whether an event attendee is a long-time member or a first-time visitor.

We’ve jury-rigged so many internal systems that it takes as much time to keep them up and running as it does to use them. We know we’re not alone — many news organizations have not made key investments in infrastructure. That’s left us in a position where we’re attracting new audiences but we have no way to build an ongoing relationship with them and eventually ask for their support. And make no mistake, for us and for other newsrooms, growing stronger relationships with our audience and being able to convert them into members is key if we are going to continue to have the resources to serve new, underrepresented communities.

I believe it’s not too much to hope for real progress toward solving this problem in 2020.

Kristen Muller is chief content officer of Southern California Public Radio.

2020 is the year newsrooms need to get serious about operationalizing all the hard work we’ve done to engage new communities.

“Engagement” is a catch-all term, used to describe everything from social media marketing to crowdsourcing a story. At its best, engagement means narrowing the gap between your newsroom and the people you serve by increasing transparency, working with the community to shape your reporting, and thinking differently about story selection, framing, and distribution. Essentially, it’s an effort to ensure that the journalism you’re producing is actually useful to the people you’re trying to reach.

Here at KPCC, L.A.’s NPR station, we’ve been challenging our own assumptions about the definition of “news,” including who it’s for and how we find it. We got started with a series of experiments to design journalism for people who have traditionally been overlooked by public media.That sent us into communities with ears open for what kind of information people need versus the kind we think they should want. We’ve also challenged our journalists to pursue beats that are both for and about the communities they’re covering.

There’s no question that we’re doing better journalism as a result. We’re also providing services we never could have imagined years ago. We’ve created a texting service for curious voters and offered census and data training for ethnic and in-language journalists. Our early childhood education team is working alongside parents and caregivers to build a traveling photography exhibition. We’ve mailed informational postcards to households we identified as potentially benefiting from our reporting, knowing they might not find us otherwise.

In a short period of time, we’ve evolved from an NPR radio station to a civic news institution that operates on multiple platforms simultaneously. But while we know how to go on air for a pledge drive and lay out the case to support us, expanding our fundraising beyond broadcast radio has been challenging.

This isn’t just a KPCC issue. Other newsrooms trying to operationalize community engagement into their business model are also struggling. What do I mean by that?

Like us, they’re finding that while they’ve transformed editorial strategy, their technological infrastructure has not kept up. For example, we don’t have a systematic way to capture the new relationships we’re building with community members outside of radio. Even as we create more touch points with our communities, there’s no automated way for us to track whether an event attendee is a long-time member or a first-time visitor.

We’ve jury-rigged so many internal systems that it takes as much time to keep them up and running as it does to use them. We know we’re not alone — many news organizations have not made key investments in infrastructure. That’s left us in a position where we’re attracting new audiences but we have no way to build an ongoing relationship with them and eventually ask for their support. And make no mistake, for us and for other newsrooms, growing stronger relationships with our audience and being able to convert them into members is key if we are going to continue to have the resources to serve new, underrepresented communities.

I believe it’s not too much to hope for real progress toward solving this problem in 2020.

Kristen Muller is chief content officer of Southern California Public Radio.

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