A guide to building deeper relationships with the communities you cover

When newsrooms think of communities as their “audience,” we often imagine their existence only in relation to the products and services we offer. Of course, journalists know that the people who read, watch and listen to our stories don’t only exist in this vacuum. However, when we talk about the people who engage with our work every day as “traffic,” “followers,” “commenters,” “subscribers” and “members,” it’s easy to lose sight of who they actually are, and think about the metrics rather than actual people.

Language matters. How we think about and frame the communities we serve inside the newsroom influences the issues we tackle, the assignments we pursue, how we define success, and how we edit, package and circulate our stories. That’s why we want to share some strategies, based on our own hard-learned lessons, for how to build genuine and productive relationships with your communities.

Step inside your communities’ shoes

Thinking about a story from the audience’s perspective sounds simple. But, in our experience, the work that sounds the simplest can be the most complex. As an “insider” in the newsroom, it’s easy to forget your audience doesn’t know what you know, and that you occupy one small part of their daily lives. As the saying goes, don’t underestimate your audience’s intelligence, but don’t overestimate their knowledge, either.

Discourse Media — the 4-year-old investigative outlet where Anita works — aims to expose buried truths, break down complexity, inspire action and encourage respectful public dialogue. Because Discourse practices solutions journalism and covers systemic problems, breaking down complexity is a particularly important goal for the Vancouver-based company, which is now expanding nationally. For people to become engaged, though, they must first be able to see why an issue matters and why they should care.

For example, Discourse recently launched a three-part investigative series into the human impacts of Canada’s “shadow population,” transient workers who move temporarily to resource development sites far away from home and live in work camps. Since there’s little information on this group, Discourse released an explainer video several days before the series was published; called “What’s a camp?” it broke down who’s part of this shadow population, how many workers there currently are and where they live when working. Discourse’s rationale? The more people understand an issue, the more they’ll want to learn and — hopefully — the more they’ll be empowered to take action.

Think about stories within the audience’s daily lives

We’ve found it vital to consider how a newsroom’s stories and services are intersecting with the daily lives of the communities it intends to serve. There are several different ways to do this. One thing a newsroom can do is ensure it’s keeping track, in some formal or informal way, of the knowledge gained when employees across all parts of the organization interact with current or potential audience members.

We’ve also found it valuable to discuss questions about the audience internally on a regular basis. What kind of feedback are reporters getting? What trends do those overseeing digital communications notice in the conversations happening in the comments sections or on social media? What are people observing about audience sentiment when employees interact with people in communities the newsroom seeks to serve? How might you use live events to listen to and engage with communities?

Too often, we don’t have the processes in place to fully capture and connect the dots on useful information that people in the newsroom are hearing. And, when we do discover useful knowledge, we often don’t have the mechanisms to circulate it to everyone who might learn from it. That could be accomplished through a regular section in an internal newsletter or weekly/monthly report, in existing team or all-staff meetings, in a Slack channel or any other format that matches your newsroom’s communication practices.

We believe in the value of encouraging employees to take off their “insider” hats and engage with their stories from the community’s perspective. How? By providing opportunities for reporters to spend time with community members outside the tunnel vision of chasing a story. (While you’re at it, here are some more related tips from Sam.)

It’s never one centralized community

As you work to understand your news organization from your audience’s perspective, be aware that this notion of “the community” is really just a rhetorical device for how we frame who we’re trying to reach. No matter how hyperlocal or niche the coverage area is for your news organization, you aren’t serving one centralized community; many different communities may engage with your journalism. We believe it’s crucial to avoid falling into the trap of having one or a few default imagined readers, listeners or viewers for which every story is crafted. It is a mode of thinking borne out of the mass marketing techniques of the broadcasting era. And, unfortunately, these segmentation profiles have too frequently gone from being helpful shorthand for imagining the audience to a limitation and liability — getting people further from understanding the actual people they seek to reach.

Previously, we both worked at Fusion Media Group (FMG), a division of Univision that includes TV network Fusion, production house Story House Entertainment, Onion Inc., Gizmodo Media Group and various other entities. While there, Sam spent almost two years forming and running FMG’s Center for Innovation and Engagement. One of the center’s initiatives was a partnership with the Civic Paths team at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School. Among other pilots, we collaborated on a project that saw researchers and students at USC analyze their experience engaging with stories from the Fusion TV network and online news site (the latter of which is now known as Splinter) from the perspective of various communities passionate about a particular issue.

The goal? To understand, qualitatively, the kinds of experiences that people who cared deeply about particular beats might have in engaging with Fusion’s overall content. These experiences were then included in a report shared with FMG employees in the newsroom and beyond as a reminder to consider the various pathways and motivations that brought particularly engaged communities to Fusion — on purpose and with purpose — as well as how each of those types of audiences could be served.

We’ve found it also important to be mindful of communities that a newsroom would like to serve but aren’t engaging currently. It can also be valuable to think about your stories from the perspective of people who may oppose your reporting. The more we consider various communities that will engage with our journalism — or those that might but currently aren’t — the more likely we’ll design products and services that foster deeper participation.

Focus dedicated engagement on particular communities

Developing an ongoing dialogue with not just your overall audience, but with particular communities within that audience, is crucial for building trusted relationships. This is an area where Discourse has invested significantly, including through its newsletter strategy.

Discourse has a general innovation newsletter, which talks to its overall audience in aggregate, as well as a newsletter for each individual reporter that focuses on an assigned beat (i.e. Data, Child Welfare, Gender and Identity, Indigenous Issues and Sustainable Development). Audience members can choose which newsletters to follow, based on their interests. Many subscribers of the reporter-centric newsletters are stakeholders in the communities that Discourse covers, including government officials, nonprofit workers, activists and everyday citizens.

The newsletters aim to add value to readers’ lives by empowering them to address the issues they care about most in their communities. They don’t only feature links to Discourse stories — they transform the reporting process into a back-and-forth dialogue with community members, rather than a passive publisher-consumer relationship. Discourse newsletters are a combination of journalist’s diary and community paper. Reporters provide updates on investigations and invite reader feedback, but also ask subscribers for information, tips and referrals to sources since the latter are embedded in their respective communities. The newsletters also experiment with different kinds of “hubs;” previous ones have included listings of local events and resources, short profiles of community members, videos, audio clips and more.

As for the “diary” part of Discourse newsletters, reporters are candid about what they know, what they don’t know and their feelings during the editorial process. This radical transparency is meant to combat the public’s growing distrust of media. For example, Brielle Morgan wrote about combatting imposter syndrome as a non-Indigenous person covering British Columbia’s child welfare system, which disproportionately impacts Indigenous people, and Wawmeesh Hamilton shared a personal story about a difficult reporting trip during which he visited the site of his parents’ old residential school.

Competition, as journalists know, is bred into traditionally minded newsrooms. Some old-school newshounds may object to radical transparency because of concern over tipping off competitors when sharing stories in progress, but Discourse believes that collaboration enhances the quality of journalism, and often partners with other media outlets on investigations. The Panama Papers is a great example of collaborative journalism that had major impact.  

Commit resources to relationship development

One approach Sam took during our time at FMG was the creation of a community liaison team, operating across all the organization’s newsrooms. The pilot demonstrated the promise of dedicating resources to relationship development. On the other hand, it also highlighted the drawbacks of engaging in a long-term approach to tackling the issue without the committed resources to sustain it.

The duo hired to execute this pilot approach, Scottie Ellis and Nick Gilyard, worked in tandem with FMG’s social impact team as well as the editorial and audience development/social media teams of various newsrooms. Their primary focus was to connect projects on underreported issues our teams were working on with communities who already care deeply about those subjects. They built systems to track how various teams reached out to key members and groups within communities, in ways that both strengthened proactive relationship development with those groups, while also being careful to understand how news teams may be reaching out to the same communities.

Nick and Scottie featured prominently at live events alongside editorial staffers, or in contexts where editorial staff couldn’t easily travel, such as a 14-stop college campus and live event tour for Fusion. Scottie managed deep, ongoing relationships with key organizations, such as the Muhammad Ali Center. Nick became a recurring face on Fusion’s Snapchat channel. Their approach was to partner with multiple newsrooms, and the various functions of those newsrooms, to ensure that a commitment to community wasn’t an unfunded mandate.

But because the community liaison duo worked across teams, their budget lay with the Center for Innovation and Engagement — not across newsrooms themselves. So, when the center was cut as part of a large-scale layoff at Univision in late 2016, the community liaison duo disappeared with it. While Nick and Scottie’s seven-month run provided glimpses of the value of connecting the dots to build broader, more proactive, ongoing dialogue with communities passionate about the beats on which FMG newsrooms were reporting, their tenure didn’t last long enough to show the deeper, long-term benefits of this sort of work.

Having employees dedicated to this kind of relationship-building and management ensures that such work doesn’t fall by the wayside. But the long-term value of such an approach requires knowing you can sustain the investment.

Also, consider Discourse’s unique approach to social media: The publication leverages it more as an engagement and education tool than a promotional tool, as it’s traditionally used by media outlets. One simple approach that Discourse takes, for example, is asking follow-up questions to Twitter users who share its articles.

Discussion around an issue often tapers off once a story is published and promoted, as it’s no longer the news organization’s focus. Discourse, on the other hand, tries to engage communities in its editorial process, from before reporting begins all the way to post-publication. How? By encouraging community members to take conversation beyond its platforms and continue debating elsewhere — both online and off. That’s why Discourse holds editorial postmortems with its readership in various forms, including Twitter chats and live-streamed Q&As. The publication also frequently holds in-person “listening events” where stakeholders gather to share their views, questions and concerns around a Discourse project.

At the core of both these examples is the idea that relationship development with the communities that a publication seeks to engage must be a priority, and that newsrooms benefit when they see themselves as providing services (i.e. context, listening, dialogue, community participation) and not just products. On one hand, it’s crucial that this work not be an unfunded mandate and is considered part of the newsroom’s work. On the other, you must be careful to know you can maintain the momentum you started; building long-term relationships within key communities, only to drop the commitment halfway through, could risk doing more harm than good.

Making realistic progress on serving communities

We hope that what Discourse is learning from the development of its engagement strategy proves useful for how all newsrooms can approach reporter-community relationships. And we’d love to see news organizations implement a sustainable “community liaison” program, much like the one that was piloted at Fusion.

Beyond these more ambitious projects, we’re eager for all newsrooms to find new, realistic ways to invest in making genuine connections with their communities.

For instance, give editorial staffers a chunk of time every week to incorporate more community engagement into the newsroom. Discuss the perspectives of various communities in daily work conversations — a process that will be much easier if the newsroom has diverse participants within it. Find ways to collect and share what everyone is hearing and learning from the communities the newsroom serves, even informally.

Making a commitment to better understanding the communities we seek to reach is crucial for all our newsrooms — even if progress sometimes comes in tiny steps. The challenges of increasing community engagement with our newsrooms requires us to move beyond only thinking about the news products we develop. We must consider the ways in which news acts in service of people’s daily lives, and fits within lives that don’t revolve around being our audience. That means trying to understand the range of communities we strive to serve.

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