What did we learn from a day of nonstop reporting and outreach?

Prioritizing digital engagement at the beginning of the process was key.

We posed questions to our readers — in person and across multiple digital platforms. We wanted know how the decision to close more than 900 schools disrupted their day and affected their psyche. The simple act of asking readers to contribute via digital platforms extended the reach and depth of our coverage beyond what our reporting team could have done in the field or phone.

The news broke at dawn: The nation’s second largest school district was shutting down for the day – a move would affect more than 1 million Los Angeles residents.

Lessons learned from the day include:

Start immediately

quote-400Within an hour of the closure announcement, The Times put detailed questions in front of readers via a form on our website and live blog, as well as posts on Facebook and Twitter. More than 200 parents, teachers and students responded. They represented more than 100 schools across our sprawling city. Readers who connected with us came from a range of backgrounds: a bus driver who found out halfway through her route, grandparents who pitched in for daycare, a student who watched his mother burst into tears with fear when she heard the news. Unlike asking for responses on a social callout alone, using an easy-to-create form allowed us to ask for and collect follow-up contact information. It also let us solicit focused answers to questions posed.

Build networks and use them when news breaks

We were able to tap into our High School Insider program, which proved key to reaching a student audience. Because we regularly work with student journalists, we were able to mobilize them quickly.High School Insider is a user-generated-platform that provides a space for students to report on the issues that matter to them and their communities. Teens from more than 70 schools have posted to the site since launching a year ago. We sent out an email to the more than 400 Los Angeles Unified students involved. Some contributed to the coverage, and many responded to the form with details about how it was playing out in their own schools.

Acknowledge your audience’s participation

As we used readers’ responses in our coverage, we let them know how their contributions informed our reporting.We used responses for stand-alone posts as well as quote cards asking for additional submissions. We updated readers about the latest developments and we asked them what questions they wanted answered. As coverage progressed, we continued to ask for new reactions. Those responses influenced our in-depth coverage. Education reporters were able to get in touch with parents across the more than 900 schools and 720 square miles the district covers, not just those in easy to reach neighborhoods. Business reporters relied on the database to research how workplaces handled the needs of employers with children.

The next day, we followed up with a note to everyone who contributed thanking them and posing more questions that provided sources for additional coverage.

Use each crowdsourcing venture as a learning experience

Looking back, we realized if we had more tightly structured the questions, that could have allowed for analysis beyond just what people described. In other words, we needed to be survey-like in the design of the questionnaire. Also, we know that next time, we need to build in a system from the very beginning to track responses, as well as who we’ve contacted and verified. And we need to make sure the existence of the information is widely shared with reporters and editors.

For more information about crowdsourcing, check out the Tow Center “Guide to Crowdsourcing.” It documents how other outlets have engaged readers in ways that inform investigative and breaking news reporting. One interesting takeaway from that report: we are, in effect, adopting the call out for feedback used by public radio for many years.  Perhaps that’sone of the reasons that WNYC: New York Public Radio has excelled at honing questions for crowdsourcing ventures such as tracking where plows have been after a snowstorm.

These strategies are not a substitute for traditional forms of reporting and digging. But engaging readers digitally makes our reporting efforts stronger and faster, augments our reach and makes our readers feel like contributors.  

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Daniela Gerson is community engagement editor of the Los Angeles Times and a Tow Center Research Fellow.