One purpose for journalism is to enable a community to speak with itself. In this conception journalists are a mouthpiece for the community, to allow reflection and share information. This is a journalist as a conduit. To do this effectively though, a reporter needs to be more than just a collector of information. A reliance on desk and social media reporting is understandable, especially in a post-Covid world, but it can often become a wall that filters conversation and thus mutes our sources, who should really be given a megaphone.
Now more than ever, it’s important to have an extensive network of sources within the community so that a reporter can reach and hear all aspects of a story and reflect it out. Social media tools often give the semblance of listening and community reporting at scale, but almost no community in 2022, whether geographic or topical, is truly able to reflect on itself using most social media platforms. The algorithms, spotlight, trolls and required formats mold the community into a VC-funded vision of how it should behave rather than its authentic self.
Simply put, journalists need to foster direct relationships with sources so that the “people formerly known as the audience” can feel as though they are part of a community that speaks through us. This leaves room for the role of a journalist but it keeps the center where it should be, on the public.
As with all things, my list of suggestions below is not a panacea or exhaustive. Instead, this is a list of activities to get us all thinking about ways we can better understand our community and walk a mile in their shoes.
What Cole Goins did recently with artist Chris Treggiari in Oakland is a perfect example. The Oakland Lowdown is a physical space for news and art. With a focus on community engagement the former liquor store is a springboard for all kinds of info-products. “If you boil journalism down to its component parts, the actual product can be anything: a zine, a flier, a billboard, art. We’re interested in creating more original work rooted in the needs of people in this community.”
My absolute favorite example of getting physical might be The Sentinel in Marfa, Texas. “The Sentinel is a coffee shop, restaurant, bar and event venue in Marfa, Texas. It is home to The Big Bend Sentinel and Presidio International newspapers.” Perhaps it’s cliché, but a journalist as a bartender seems like a perfect way to meet your community and truly understand them.
We might not all have a restaurant and bar, but every newsroom can hold office hours in person or at least virtually. To get the most value out of this strategy, center the conversations around a specific topic/issue in your community. “The Citizens Agenda” towards this upcoming election cycle is a great framework.
If you’re a little sheepish, a great first organizational step in this direction would be once a month or once a quarter, invite a small group of the community to go on a tour of your local newsroom. This can help members of the community gain a greater appreciation/understanding of what it takes to run a local newsroom. It also increases transparency with the community.
“My readers know more than I do,” first noted by Dan Gillmore around 2004 remains one of the most crucial insights into journalism of the 21st century. The statement begs the question; how will you listen/understand and incorporate their knowledge?
Several internet generations later, many news organizations do what I call “listening calls.” These are products and processes that take the heart of Dan’s 2004 insight and scale it out. Instead of open-ended comments at the end of articles, a “listening call” from a news organization invites the audience to provide insight, directed feedback or profess information gaps that the newsroom can leverage and respond to. Hearken is at the forefront of this space and the industry is lucky to have folks like Jennifer Brandel and Ashley Alvarado as advocates for this practice.
What should we cover? What information needs to be reflected back to the community? How does a complex civic system work? All of these and more are questions that our audience already has answers too. An audience, however, doesn’t answer questions. That’s something an invested community member does. To make that shift a newsroom needs to invite readers to talk back. There are lots of ways to start that dance. A simple call-out can be the start. Whether it’s Hearken, a Google Form, or any other number of tools, having porous communication with the audience outside of the “go to” social platforms is key.
A tip to get things up to scale: Once you’ve produced a story based on community feedback, highlight this process in a meta-article. For example, “What’s the status of opening dispensaries for cannabis in Vermont?” is a reader question that Vermont Public Radio highlights as the inspiration for this story. Doing this highlights how a community member shaped the news and how others can join in too.
Huddle Up for The Modern Rolodex is
Earlier I made a distinction between “audience” and “community.” Most newsrooms want a big audience. But a community doesn’t need to be big to be valuable. Having just 100 or so people in a more private communication space can do wonders for the relationship between a reporter and their sources. The reporter can provide their analysis, the latest information, overheard in city hall type content and the 100 or so sources can respond with their insight, quotes, ideas of angles, etc.
This can happen at scale and effectively but since this is a community and not an “audience” most social media platforms aren’t very effective. Whether it’s Subtext (disclosure, I’m a co-founder) or GroundSource or another provider, creating a text-channel with your sources is a perfect 21st century Rolodex that keeps a community at the tip of your fingers, still free of algorithms and noise but in a convenient medium they already use to communicate with the most important people in their lives.
Here’s an example of a texting channel from Christopher Quinn, the President of Cleveland.com. After Cleveland.com turned off public comments, he used the feedback from the growing focus group to inform his column and the direction of the organization’s editorial. For example, they launched a gardening column based on feedback from his texting audience.
No organization is an island. A powerful way to engender yourself to a community is to partner with outside organizations, especially non-news organizations. Earlier this year academics produced “Cross-field collaboration: How and why journalists and civil society organizations around the world are working together,” which looked at 155 collaborations in 125 countries. The summary can be found here, suffice to say these joint actions allow community trust to be shared.
In 2022 the world is adjusting to a new normal. It involves Zoom, TikTok and polarization galore. To do their job reporters need to peel back a layer. Engagement and community are thrown around a lot but they aren’t buzzwords. They are hard-earned and easily lost relationships, which require deep work and savvy tools to build. It’s one step at a time and wearing the right shoes – that’s how reporters can learn to walk a mile in their sources’ shoes.
Co-Founder & Chief Strategy Officer, Subtext
David Cohn is the Co-Founder and Chief Strategy Officer of Subtext, a conversation platform that connects diverse content hosts and subscribers for one-on-one communication through text messaging. In 2015, David joined The Alpha Group, an in-house tech and media incubator for Advance, and served as a senior director overseeing content strategy. Prior to joining Subtext, David was a journalist and published work in Wired, Seed, Columbia Journalism Review and The New York Times among other publications. He also taught journalism classes at The Poynter Institute and UC Berkeley. Early on in his career, he founded Spot.Us, one of the first journalism crowdfunding platforms created, worked as the executive producer at AJ+, and was an assignment editor for Assignment Zero, the first early web experiment for crowdsourcing in journalism.
David holds a B.A. in Rhetoric and Philosophy from the University of California, Berkeley and a master’s degree in New Media from Columbia University.