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April 2, 2024, 1:28 p.m.
Audience & Social

The Listening Post Collective offers a free road map (and microgrants) for meeting community information needs

“I think sometimes we get stuck in an echo chamber of being around each other a little too much. And I think that can hinder some of this work.”

What do the questions “who do you love,” “why are you mad,” and “what’s for dinner” have to do with news?

Jesse Hardman, and the Listening Post Collective, know that those questions might not seem as intuitively newsy as, say, “How are you impacted by policing?” or “What does affordable housing mean to you?”

But about a decade ago, after Hardman founded a New Orleans-based community initiative called the Listening Post, he wanted to grow its audience by encouraging community members who might not otherwise engage with local news to get in touch. Hardman noticed that creative, colorful signs were a staple of NOLA, and decided to experiment with posting simple, personal questions on signs around the city, along with a phone number to text answers to. Hardman knew residents were more likely to own smartphones than laptops, because he’d conducted an “information ecosystem assessment” that he described as “a summer of listening my way through barbecues, farmers markets, church coffees, and front porch sessions” to understand how residents found news and key information.

It worked. “Hundreds of people saw my signs, and started texting in their answers,” Hardman says in an instructional video. He explained to texters that they had engaged with a local news project, and followed up with them about once a week with news items or further questions — opening up two-way conversations about more conventionally “newsy” topics, like public libraries and affordable housing. Over a few years, Hardman managed to reach about 1,500 people “from all over the city” this way, and went on to meet several SMS subscribers in person.

The SMS initiative helped increase the reach of Listening Post, which Hardman had founded under the nonprofit Internews in partnership with local radio station WWNO in 2013. As part of the Listening Post project, Hardman also installed quirky recording booths1 in public places like libraries, with news topics and questions posted every two weeks for community members to comment on. Their commentary was then featured in WWNO radio stories, and the news stories were sent back to “Listening Posters” in the SMS network.

“How do you get people talking? It’s not always shoving a microphone in their face — it might be kind of leaving them the space to talk,” Hardman told me.

And by experimenting with the signs asking casual questions, “I learned that engaging people with something a little more universal, like ‘What’s for dinner?’ or ‘why [you’re] mad’ — it’s a better way to start inviting people into a news conversation,” Hardman reflected in the instructional video.

The original Listening Post project lasted four years. It formed the foundation for the Listening Post Collective, which aims to scale Hardman’s original engagement work and serve as a national resource for anyone looking to better understand and meet community information needs. In 2017, the Collective compiled and published the first iteration of its “playbook,” a PDF guide to community engagement and information needs. In 2022, it relaunched that playbook as a free, digital, self-paced course that walks participants through five modules across three phases — “listen,” “seed,” and “cultivate.” And last fall, the Collective updated the playbook, adding more interactive features including discussion boards for each module.

Organizations using the playbook can also apply for up to $30,000 in microgrants to support their work assessing information needs and building out new information resources. The Listening Post Collective has distributed $1 million in grants since 2017, and prioritizes applications from projects serving BIPOC or immigrant communities in its grantmaking process.

Though anyone can use the playbook, you need to register with an email to access it. Close to 400 people have logged in within the past year, Hardman told me, and the playbook gets “50 to 60 additional logins per quarter.” It’s optional for users to share demographic information, but Hardman told me the Collective has “documented log-ins from around 30 states, and about eight different countries.” The Collective also works with eight “partners” (which currently include Conecta Arizona, El Tímpano, and Lede New Orleans) that are in the “cultivate” stage, providing them with funding and a “tailored coaching program” over a three-year period.

The Collective remains part of Internews and receives support from a mix of local and national funders, including Democracy Fund, the Walton Family Foundation, Loud Hound, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and the James Irvine Foundation. Its annual budget is currently about $1.5 million, which is mostly allocated to microgrants, playbook support, and support for the Collective’s partnership program, Hardman told me.

The Collective also has ambitious goals for scaling: Over the next five years, it aims to raise $20 million and reinvest that funding in communities across 21 states where it has identified “the highest need and opportunity for civic media” (based on three years of mapping work that considered communities’ demographics, voter turnout rates, and existing information resources, among other factors).

Beyond the Listening Post Collective’s own work and goals, an emphasis on information ecosystem assessments is increasingly showing up in major local news funding initiatives like Press Forward — suggesting a growing consensus among funders that groundwork for understanding community information needs should be a prerequisite for investing big in local news. The Listening Post Collective is referenced in Press Forward’s guide for local funders, and the “ecosystem” and “information mapping” language Hardman was using back in 2013 is increasingly framing funder conversations about how to think about supporting and sustaining local news (including among philanthropies looking to support local news for the first time). The Collective’s focus on civic information, and less traditional mechanisms for distributing information, also dovetails with an ongoing redefinition of “local news” embodied by, for instance, the Roadmap for Local News published last year.

In January, Press Forward’s lead funder, the MacArthur Foundation, announced it had hired Silvia Rivera from the Listening Post Collective as its director of local news.

Rivera told me in an email that her time at the Listening Post Collective “grounded my perspective on the value of community-centered media and that traditional newsrooms are not the only source of reliable, local, civic information in the U.S.” She added that in her view, the Collective, as part of Internews, “pioneered” framing local news needs through information ecosystems in a U.S context. Rivera sees that framing, and its emphasis on community listening, becoming increasingly mainstream “from media to its leaders to civic partners, foundations, etc.,” and specifically pointed to funders MacArthur, Knight, and Democracy Fund as playing a leading role in applying that framing to “Press Forward’s thinking and approach.”

Roots from Chicago to Sri Lanka

When Hardman explains the origins of the Listening Post Collective, he traces it back to a formative learning experience he had as a journalist in the early aughts.

As a radio reporter in Chicago at the time, Hardman caught wind of a college-level humanities course called The Odyssey Project on the South Side for students who hadn’t graduated from high school. Hardman, interested in reporting on an area of the city he saw as undercovered (and disproportionately covered for crime), was eager to cover the education initiative as a different kind of story. He attended a class and a field trip, and interviewed students and graduates for a four-minute radio feature that aired on Marketplace.

In the radio feature, the story is introduced in the national context of the Bush presidency’s No Child Left Behind initiative. Hardman, describing the subjects of his reporting, says early in the segment, “These students are enrolled in an international humanities program for poor people.”

The radio story was popular when it aired, Hardman told me. But the teacher who had suggested the story to him asked him to return to the class to share it directly with the students he’d written about. Hardman returned to the subjects of his story with a “stack of CDs,” he wrote for Transom last fall. The students took him to task for the way he had reported the story, in a way that the general public had not. It was like having “a room full of editors” point out everything he missed, Hardman told me. “What had passed relatively easily through a seasoned Marketplace editor was not enough in this classroom,” he wrote in Transom.

That feedback was a reckoning for Hardman about how to earn and build trust, and what it meant to actually serve communities and meet their information needs instead of parachuting in and out. In late 2007, Hardman took a new commitment to serving communities with necessary information to his work abroad for Internews, including in Sri Lanka during the last years of its civil war. The cyclical process of asking displaced and resettled communities what information they needed, bringing that information to them (both via radio and physically, by delivering newspapers), and then following up to ask “how they use information, and whether it was useful, and what else is on their mind” felt to Hardman like the polar opposite of the kind of work he’d done years before for his Chicago Marketplace story — and later became the foundation for his work with the Listening Post in New Orleans.

The Listening Post Collective today

The digital playbook’s five modules (which include “define your community” and “design your information ecosystem assessment”) walk through resources like sample spreadsheets and relevant data sets, tips for community engagement, and videos where journalists explain how they completed a given step in building their own news outlet. The Collective tends to see the most engagement with the first three modules, or “listening” phase, Hardman told me.

Two local news orgs that have created information ecosystem assessments and partnered with the Listening Post Collective are El Tímpano and Documented NY. In one video featured in the playbook, Madeleine Bair, founding director of the California-based El Tímpano, describes how she spent months meeting with Oakland’s Mayan and Latinx community leaders. Bair said she thinks of an information ecosystem assessment as “a participatory design process”; when she was creating the foundation for El Tímpano, this entailed hearing from about two dozen community leaders and 300 community members about the issues that are most important to them, where they currently get news and information, and what they are looking for in local, Spanish-language media. (Another Golden State outlet, LA Public Press, received a microgrant from the Listening Post Collective for its own community outreach.)

“The advice that I would give to someone who is trying to identify issues in the community is that it takes time to build relationships,” Bair says in the video. “Our information ecosystem assessment took nearly a year.” But that work “has paid back in dividends” — their platforms reached nearly 10% of Oakland Spanish-speaking households and one in two subscribers responded with questions.

In another module, Nicolás Ríos of Documented NY outlines how early community outreach (online and offline) with no hard reporting goal beyond listening to what was missing from current media coverage led the outlet to establish a Spanish-language news resource and community on WhatsApp.

On top of helping build trust, this community listening step “also saves you money,” Ríos said in the video. “Because the other way of doing things is top-down, in which we think that there is a need for something, we run some consumption analytic survey, etc., and we come up with a product…with an app, with a newsletter…but then to just understand that people didn’t really have that need, or that the need was kind of different.”

Though anyone can access the playbook, the Listening Post Collective now aims to invest in media projects in communities across 21 states (heavily concentrated in the South) where it believes it can have the greatest impact as part of its five-year strategic plan. To make those investments, the organization hopes to raise $20 million, and sees “this year as our ‘ramp-up’ year for funding,” Listening Post Collective program officer Grace Northern told me in an email. “We’ve secured funding from Democracy Fund for the next two years,” she added, “and are in conversations with Press Forward-aligned donors on various components of our strategy, hoping to secure our first sizeable level of investment by the end of the year.”

That $20 million, more specifically, would go toward funding information ecosystem assessments, providing “multi-year funding to 9 to 18 civic media partners,” and distributing “230-plus microgrants to catalyze community-led civic media projects” and providing continued support to those communities through a peer network. Hardman elaborated that the $20 million would be broken up into three categories: “seed funding and microgrants,” to “cover critical costs such as equipment, training, and operational expenses that might otherwise present barriers for local groups”; “civic media programming and engagement” funding to “support our Civic Media Design process, serving as the heart of our approach for understanding and addressing the unique information needs of each community we serve” by funding in-depth research, community engagement, and “the development of targeted interventions”; and admin and operational costs. Hardman added that half of the $20 million would go toward the civic media playbook specifically, including “Civic Media Design curriculum, data access, microgrants, sustained mentorship and coaching, and networking.”

This year, the Collective is specifically focusing on nine states. “Our current priority states are based on data we collected a couple of years ago, so they’re subject to change as the landscape does,” Northern told me. She said focusing on nine out of 21 states first was a matter of organizational capacity and strategy, rather than fundraising limitations.

Logistically, being a part of Internews helps make this growth and ambitious regranting realistic, in Hardman’s view. “Being a part of Internews allows us to scale up operations quickly as we have the institutional and operational support to hire staff and regrant funding at all levels,” he told me.

He envisions the Listening Post Collective, similar to Internews, as “kind of a strategic redistributor of funds that also supports the people getting those funds.” But Hardman reflected that he always wants to get feedback from the communities he ultimately wants to serve. He reminds himself to try to talk directly to community members in the states where he’s working (he’d been on a call with South Carolina high school teachers about their information ecosystem observations the day before we spoke), instead of just preaching to the choir of journalists and journalism support groups.

“I love that this peer space has grown and…is getting funded — that is a dream come true,” Hardman said. But “I think sometimes we get stuck in an echo chamber of being around each other a little too much. And I think that can hinder some of this work.”

Photo by israel palacio on Unsplash.

  1. Some were created to look like “a fish, a lamppost, and a tree” by local artist Jacques Duffourc, though they became “less Mardi Gras, and a little more straightforward” over time, Hardman told me. ↩︎
Sophie Culpepper is a staff writer at Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email (sophie@niemanlab.org) or Twitter DM (@s_peppered).
POSTED     April 2, 2024, 1:28 p.m.
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