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May 23, 2024, 2:44 p.m.
Audience & Social

Postcards and laundromat visits: The Texas Tribune audience team experiments with IRL distribution

As social platforms falter for news, a number of nonprofit outlets are rethinking distribution for impact and in-person engagement.

When The Texas Tribune began reaching out to residents in the Cloverleaf neighborhood, near Houston, its reporters knew many community members were not regular readers. In fact, most in the primarily Spanish-speaking area hadn’t heard of the Tribune — an established and respected nonprofit newsroom but one that publishes primarily online in English.

Maria Mendez, a service and engagement reporter at the Tribune, said the outlet has long wanted to focus on reaching more Hispanic Texans given they’re about 40% of the state’s population but knew it would be something of an uphill battle. As Mendez acknowledged, “We’re not their trusted source.”

The nonprofit news industry has seen an uptick of interesting — and decidedly more analog — experiments to distribute journalism to new and often underserved audiences. The local nonprofit newsroom The City successfully tested distributing their reporting about rent stabilization and tenant rights to heat via postcards in New York City. Aallyah Wright — who covers rural issues for Capital B, the digital news site “for and by Black people”shared that she’d created a layout in Canva and printed copies of a story for a source. The Baltimore Beat, keenly aware more than 40% of city residents do not have internet at home, stocks custom-built “Beat Boxes” with print issues that always include a community resource guide.

The often small-scale experiments are happening in the context of some macro trends in journalism. Traffic to news sites through social media is dropping. Digital-native newsrooms are producing some of the industry’s most important work without a legacy print audience. Trust in media remains low. And the growing field of nonprofit news is frequently asked by grant-giving foundations and donors large and small to demonstrate impact.

All this has left a number of news organizations rethinking audience work and distribution — and especially how they can get their work in front of people who could use it the most.

In what The Texas Tribune is calling a “first” for its newsroom, the outlet experimented with in-person outreach for its reporting on air quality monitoring and petrochemical plants. Locals interviewed for the story told the Tribune about health symptoms and other causes for concern. (One described the air as having a “poison-like smell.”) The Tribune followed up on monitoring being done by the state and laid out what steps locals can take to protect themselves. The project came out of the Altavoz Lab Environmental Fellowship and also received funding from the Pulitzer Center. It was co-published in March by the Tribune, Environmental Health News, and palabra in both English and Spanish.

To reach affected audiences, the Tribune printed 500 flyers and 1,000 postcards in English and Spanish. Journalists knocked on doors in the neighborhoods where they’d reported and made additional stops in school pick-up lines, churches, grocery stores, laundromats, and other spots where residents gather.

The Texas Tribune’s director of audience growth and engagement Matt Adams said the Tribune has put renewed focus on pushing beyond posting stories on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media.

“We’re thinking more about in-person and community impact and what can we do to go beyond a website or a platform that [readers] might not be on or might not see,” Adams said.

Adams, who joined the Tribune from NPR roughly one year ago, said audience work is “completely different” than it was three or four years ago “because of all the platforms changing.”

“Every news org is seeing their traffic look different than it did a couple years ago and everyone’s kind of concerned,” Adams said. “We’re going to have to get comfortable with thinking about new ways to engage audiences that involve getting out and meeting them and actually talking with them and not looking at page views.”

“It’s really going to be about getting out into your community and finding out who reads you and who doesn’t [and] who you need to introduce yourself to,” he added.

For the environmental reporting project, the postcards pointed to advocacy groups, like Air Alliance Houston, working on the issue and featured a link via QR code for people who wanted to know more.

Texas Tribune environmental reporter Alejandra Martinez said she and her reporting partner, the freelance journalist Wendy Selene Pérez, wanted to know how the affected Cloverleaf community consumes their news.

In interviews and casual conversation, Martinez and Pérez heard community members talk about distrusting the media. When sources invited them in for coffee or snacks, they noted if the household had Telemundo or another information source on in the background. The journalists also asked how they’d prefer to receive information about their investigation.

All of this was done from the beginning of their reporting — not as an afterthought.

Martinez said community members talked about getting information via TV news, online groups on Facebook and WhatsApp, or family and friends. She found herself explaining journalistic concepts and reiterating that she didn’t have a hidden agenda for interviewing residents.

After her experience reporting in the community, it was important to her that the Tribune didn’t just “hear [residents’] experiences, publish the story, and move on,” she said.

“From the beginning, we knew that we wanted to come back to the community in terms of giving them the story and explaining to them how they contributed to this big project,” Martinez said. “I would ask them, would a postcard be helpful for you? I saw you had a bunch of stuff on your fridge — is that something you would put on your fridge?”

“I hear a lot of the same things as a reporter. Basically what a lot of it comes down to is, ‘How are you going to help me?'” Martinez added. “Thinking about how we would we provide information post-publication was really important.”

Martinez and Pérez spent four days distributing their work in Cloverleaf and neighboring communities. Editor-in-chief Sewell Chan said he believed having Spanish speakers leading the effort was “essential.”

“We need to be in-person to build trust with audiences who have been historically underserved,” Chan said. “This was a primarily Spanish-speaking, migrant community, directly affected by state policies because they lived in a polluted area with high levels of toxins and negative health outcomes. The data from the pollution monitors existed, but there was no way for ordinary people to access that data and understand their own level of risk.”

Natalie Martinez, the Tribune’s social media editor, played a project management role that her colleagues raved was essential to keeping the many-pronged project on track. She also created new systems to measure success for this first-of-its-kind project after publication, including tracking in-person interactions, follow-up needs, and the especially gratifying occasions when residents offered to help share and distribute the Tribune’s reporting.

Here’s what journalists and audience editors at the Tribune recommended for newsrooms who want to experiment with something similar:

Involve your audience team — or people who do that work in your newsroom — as early as possible in the project. The in-person planning began when the story “wasn’t concrete or very decided,” the Tribune team said.

Think about project management and give the team “generous” deadlines. Getting the in-person outreach project across the finish line amid breaking news and other newsroom responsibilities was no small task. Social media editor Natalie Martinez emphasized that “the process should be treated as equal to the final product.”

“An issue I often hear from journalists wanting to try new things is that they don’t know how to navigate their workplace to make those ideas a reality,” Martinez explained. “I think in our case, having someone whose primary responsibility was to handle logistics, like organizing new workflows, setting deadlines, documenting the process and coordinating communication between teams, relieved that pressure from the reporters, allowing them to focus on the actual engagement work.”

Alejandra Martinez, who co-bylined the Tribune story, agreed: “Coming from a reporter background, I’m used to doing things on the fly and just getting the daily story done. But that can just backfire on you.”

Track “success” — whatever that looks like. The City, for its own postcard experiment, tested the effectiveness against targeted Facebook ads by attaching a UTM code to the link on handouts. The Tribune didn’t add tracking to its QR code but did tally in-person interactions.

“Success might not look like an actual metric on the website. It might just be someone who replied and said, ‘This really helped me. I want more copies to give to a neighbor,'” reporter Alejandra Martinez said. “That might be your goal that you set out for and I think that’s a good start.”

Treat being helpful as your North Star. Mendez said centering reader and audience needs is “key.” In this case, that meant transforming journalism about air monitoring and previous chemical plant issues into resources to help residents connect with on-the-ground resources and prepare for the possibility of another emergency.

“I think you really have to spell why your story is going to be helpful for them and why it’s going to be worth it for them to spend 5 to 10 minutes reading your piece,” Mendez said. “Like, okay, you’re writing about this massive chemical explosion that happened, but how can we help people now?”

“You’ve got to show you’re helping them navigate their lives in this busy, stressful world,” she added.

You can read (or listen) to “Neglected and exposed: Toxic air lingers in a Texas Latino community, revealing failures in state’s air monitoring system” from The Texas Tribune here.

Image of Texas Tribune journalists in Cloverleaf, Texas courtesy of Alejandra Martinez.

Sarah Scire is deputy editor of Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email (sarah_scire@harvard.edu), Twitter DM (@SarahScire), or Signal (+1 617-299-1821).
POSTED     May 23, 2024, 2:44 p.m.
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