June 19, 2020

I sat at the same table every Friday, next to the upright piano and open mic area, drinking coffee while cops picked up breakfast sandwiches, city councilors met local activists over quinoa salads and residents guessed what time their bus would show up at the terminal next door.

Welcome to our community newsroom.

The Scope is a digital social justice magazine, editorially independent and operated by Northeastern University’s School of Journalism. Barely two years old, the publication aims to cover communities in Greater Boston that are underrepresented by traditional media.

As Poynter-Koch fellow and editor-in-chief, I ran our small news startup from this local cafe in a historical Black neighborhood every week. It was one way we worked to get to know and respect our readers, and build trust with our audience.

Trust in the media is low nationwide, but particularly in communities accustomed to being ignored or misrepresented by mainstream media outlets. It’s not low so much as nonexistent. But without trust, our enterprise, like many others, fails. In the midst of the pandemic and nationwide protests for racial justice, authentic audience engagement and trust building are the most important ways to ensure the inclusive, community voices audiences are demanding get heard.

As a small startup — I was the first and full-time staff member, working with one other student editor, two student staff writers and a faculty advisor — we decided to bake trust-building into our processes from the beginning.

It didn’t always work. Some ideas worked better than others. The pandemic ensured some of our plans went to the wall. I drank a lot of coffee in the cafe on my own.

What follows is a list of some of the more successful ways we built trust with our audience, started conversations, and actively listened to what they said.

Have a clear and visible mission statement

The first place we started was by looking at what we stand for, what motivates our work, what our readers can expect from us and, importantly for our audience, what sets us apart from other news organizations that have destroyed their trust in the past.

For us it was:

“We tell stories of justice, hope and resilience in Greater Boston. We practice journalism as an act of service, working to connect communities, inform civic life and amplify voices that are often overlooked or mischaracterized by traditional media. We do this by striving to be transparent, fair and accurate in our reporting.”

It gave us something to point to when people said they expected us to only parachute into their neighborhood when there’s pain and suffering. We hope our mission statement, and our consistent presence in the neighborhoods, helped allay their concerns.

Formulating a set of guiding principles isn’t revolutionary. Being direct, writing them clearly and making them easy to find on our website and social media — that was the game-changer.

We laid it out plainly and we pasted it across the top of our website. We included links to our mission statement in stories and developed a separate mission statement for our coverage of the coronavirus, including in-line graphics that link to this page on all of our COVID-19 coverage. We also pinned stories to our social media pages so that this would be the first thing new followers would find on our feeds.

Explain what you do and how you do it

As journalists, we often assume people know how journalism works. But we found from speaking with our audience that they didn’t know where our story ideas came from, how we handled anonymous sources or more fundamentally, how we ensure what we publish is accurate.

We added a page on our website explaining these things, and invited readers to ask us questions about our coverage. We also printed information cards about our work for reporters to hand out to people they approached who were unfamiliar with our publication.

Our transparency helped us connect with people and get interviews that, on a few occasions, did not seem likely at the outset.

Be human

A Pew Research report from 2019 showed 78% of people have never met a local journalist. In the communities we worked in, those who did meet a local journalist found it was not always a pleasant experience. They met on some of their darkest days or in traumatic circumstances. We tried to fix that.

Our newsroom pop-ups, first in local cafes, then virtually via Zoom, inspired story ideas and fostered relationships with community members that we wouldn’t have met in our inboxes or on social media. It also gave readers the chance to see that we were not walking word processors, but empathetic, there to listen and not to manipulate their words. They saw we would treat their story with dignity. It’s hard to hate “the media” when you’ve shared a cup of coffee with them.

Smaller actions included signing off tweets with my name, making sure I responded to every comment personally and sharing finished articles with those who graciously gave their time and energy for a story. Humanizing our digital presence helped turn down the heat in a few situations, showed our readers we weren’t mindless bots and that we were invested in holding space for their concerns.

Let them do the talking

We say we want to give overlooked or mischaracterized communities a voice. What that often translates to is our voice. At the Scope, we wanted to see if we could work ourselves out of a job. We wanted to let members of these communities write the stories themselves.

We partnered with local writing and literacy nonprofits, and planned to publish work by local high school students, Boston’s Black writers and members of the immigrant community. Plans and priorities changed once COVID-19 hit, but it’s something we’re committed to moving forward once things return to normal.

Meet your audience where they are

Build a news site and they will come, said no one ever. Similarly, not everyone is online or has a social media profile you can engage with.

Take our audience in Boston, where, according to the 2018 American Community Survey, households of color are less likely to have access to broadband internet. Almost 90% of Black households had a broadband subscription in 2018, about 7% less than White households.

Our solution was to take some communication offline. The pop-up newsroom played its part, as did the printed explainer cards, old-fashioned posters and clips we handed out while reporting. We also plan to experiment with texting and WhatsApp services to better serve our mobile audience.

An ending note on measuring trust: It is, in many ways, still a subjective science.

One of our biggest challenges was how to quantify trust. We focused on quantitative data, like returning visitors, time on page and social media engagement, figuring that if they didn’t trust us, readers wouldn’t want to hang around with us. Being new, our numbers were small, skewing most analysis and forcing us to rely on more qualitative information.

In short, we spoke to our existing audience and those who had never heard of us and listened to what they said. It seems straightforward, but while in lockdown and while people have more pressing concerns than giving us feedback on our new font face, it wasn’t.

Building trust takes time, but these are just a few ways that may speed up the process. It’s vital not only for our profession, but more importantly for those communities we serve who deserve a news outlet they can trust to tell their stories, during a pandemic, racial justice protesting and always.

Catherine McGloin is a freelance journalist, recent graduate of the Poynter-Koch Media and Journalism Fellowship and former editor-in-chief of the Scope. She can be reached at @catmcgloin.

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