California Watch’s engagement efforts show staffers what hard-to-reach audiences want

California Watch’s stories about earthquake safety problems in schools reached hundreds of thousands of people through a statewide network of radio, TV and newspaper partnerships.

But the ones most affected by nonprofit news agency’s investigation were the ones least likely to read it — children.

That’s where Ashley Alvarado comes in. Her job as California Watch’s public engagement manager is figuring out how to deliver information to the audiences who need it most but are hardest to reach. This means that her techniques have to be as unique as the diverse communities that she’s targeting.

With the earthquake safety story, the solution was putting information in a kid-friendly format — coloring books. And not just in English, but also in Spanish, Vietnamese and both simplified and traditional Chinese, the most spoken languages in California.

California Watch had planned to print 2,000 copies, but the demand quickly exceeded that. By the time the outreach campaign ended in June, California Watch published 36,000 coloring books and distributed them for free. The site, Alvarado said by phone, is still getting requests for books from schools and organizations.

While the coloring book has been a hit with children, it’s also helped California Watch forge relationships with parents and educators. Alvarado began her outreach long before the coloring book was published to get input on the type of content it should include. Conversations with Chinese language schools, where many immigrant families send their children on the weekends, even resulted in a tip for another story.

Alvarado got an email from XiaoLin Chang, the director of two schools in Milpitas, Calif., about a local public school teacher who had pinned a note to a kindergartener’s shirt and embarrassed parents.

Chang, whose Chinese schools include 200 families, said that the contact with California Watch was her first with any U.S. news media. Previously, she had never heard of California Watch. Now, she’s a subscriber to its news emails.

“They made me feel comfortable, and I think they give people good information,” Chang said in a phone interview.

Alvarado said the news organizations cannot afford to write off diverse communities. “You want to reflect the state that you’re covering, and California is diverse,” she says. “And to get at that, we need to be out on the streets and pull people into what we do.”

California Watch has also attended local street fairs and bazaars to help draw ties between its content and the community. To publicize stories about illegal levels of lead in jewelry, for instance, California Watch rented a lead testing machine for $1,400 and offered to test jewelry for people at several places, including a flea market.

Robert Rosenthal, executive director of the Center for Investigative Reporting, which oversees California Watch, said the outreach ultimately improves the journalism.

“It isn’t simply getting information to these communities,” he said. “It’s getting information back to us to make our journalism more relevant and meaningful.”

Rosenthal said California Watch had wanted to hire someone to focus on reaching diverse audiences, but didn’t have the funds to do so until it received a grant from California Endowment — a foundation that was interested in helping marginalized communities gain access to news. Part of the $440,000 grant went toward funding Alvarado’s position.

Even though most news organizations don’t have such resources, there’s plenty they can do to tap into diverse communities.

Here are some lessons culled from California Watch’s efforts:

Bring your office to the community. Technology makes it easy to do everything online, but it also enables reporters to work from anywhere. So why not take your office to the community? California Watch periodically has an “Open Newsroom” day in which reporters work from coffee shops in different parts of the state. Reporters say they’ve connected with people who haven’t heard of California Watch previously, and a few of the contacts became sources.

Design outreach that allows active participation. For the coloring book, Alvarado solicited suggestions from the community about the name of the watchdog mascot (Sunny was the winner). For the stories about lead in jewelry, Alvarado passed out fliers in English and Spanish. The offer to test people’s jewelry, though, got the most attention.

Collaborate with partners to help fund projects. The coloring books campaign cost about $20,000, which included printing, translation and travel expenses for Alvarado as she visited schools around the state. Half of the cost was footed by partners — KQED radio, Patch, Inkworks Press, the Public Insight Network and the Isabel Allende Foundation. Rosenthal said that with diminishing resources, collaboration is the only way to do more.

Get introductions from a trusted resource.
Not knowing a language or being unfamiliar with an area can be daunting. It’s easier when you have someone who can introduce you to a community. That person can be the head of a nonprofit or a longtime resident. When Alvarado was trying to gauge Chinese speakers’ interest in the coloring book, she contacted the director of an association for Chinese schools. The person was a family friend of reporter Joanna Lin. The director in turn leveraged her network to help California Watch.

Alvarado said her work in the coming year will focus on engaging people before a story is written, rather than after. But the same techniques apply.

“I like to joke that California Watch is so old-school that we’re new-school,” she said. “We’ve gotten back to the basics of reaching out in person to readers, existing and potential.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story indicated that California Watch published 34,000 coloring books. More than 34,000 were distributed, but 36,000 were published.

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  • Anonymous

    Ashley and California Watch have figured out something I think is fundamental these days: Journalists have an obligation to identify and attempt to connect with the people who most want and need their content.

    http://www.nieman.harvard.edu/reports/article/102625/Engaging-Communities-Content-and-Conversation.aspx

    I’d love to see newsrooms everywhere incorporate a focus on audience. For every project, who do we have in mind as we report? How can we involve people in our processes and products? And how will we make sure what we publish finds people where they’re already talking, rather than hoping they decide to come find us on their own?