August 28, 2015

For Katrina’s fifth anniversary, CNN partnered with local residents to shoot a series of then-and-now photographs. (Katie Hawkins-Gaar/CNN)

Every journalist knows the drill: As a milestone anniversary of a notable event approaches, the planning meetings and team discussions begin. How are we going to cover this? What’s our angle? How many resources will we devote?

The 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina is no different. Given the magnitude of the disaster and the proliferation of digital content, it’s nearly impossible to keep up with everything that’s been published so far. (If you are trying to keep up with it all, is a great resource.)

Places like The Washington Post, BuzzFeed and ESPN produced beautiful longform pieces. Journalists created poignant radio stories, smart interactives and stunning photographs. And, of course, there have been countless op-eds.

Anniversaries of significant events like Katrina give us all a valuable opportunity to look back and reflect on what has (or hasn’t) changed over time. But they offer a challenge as well. When everyone is covering the same milestone, how do you stand apart?

I can offer up one tried-and-true solution: Look to your audience.

You won’t succeed by doing this in a surface-level kind of way, such as asking for comments or stories that are turned into a sad collection of reader contributions. Instead, if you think about audience participation from the very beginning — as soon as those anniversary planning meetings begin — there’s a good chance you’ll wind up producing a story that stands out from the pack.

During my tenure on the CNN iReport team, I saw every milestone anniversary as an opportunity to work with our audience in a new way.

In the summer of 2010, some of the iReport crew and I were obsessed with a series of photographs called Looking Into the Past. The then-and-now juxtaposition seemed perfect for our coverage of the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. This type of project has been done many times before (in fact, it reappeared in this series of photos for Katrina’s 10th anniversary), but it became more meaningful when we involved our audience. My colleague Christina Zdanowicz and I spent a weekend in New Orleans ahead of the anniversary and organized a photowalk for interested iReporters, where we all practiced lining up old photographs in the places where they were taken.

A handful of the iReporters later shot then-and-now photos for the project, using their own images from 2005. The end result was not only beautiful but wonderfully personal. Residents like Lauren DiMaggio had much more to offer to the story than we ever could. “It was only five years ago, but these are definitely pictures back in time,” she said then. “Looking at them brought back the feelings of being helpless and out of town, wondering if we could ever come home.”

The following year, we held endless planning discussions around the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks. For whatever reason, despite all the brainstorm meetings, my team couldn’t figure out the winning angle for an anniversary story. With a few months to spare, we looked to our audience instead. We asked a very obvious and simple question: What’s your 9/11 story?

Because the barrier of entry was so low, we received hundreds of responses. At first glance, they seemed all over the place and we seemed no closer to a project idea. After reading every single story, though, connections began to emerge. We found more than one person who decided to enroll in the military the very next day; we read stories from people who lost a loved one that day, completely unrelated to the terrorist attacks; we met Muslim Americans who faced racism and struggled with acceptance.

We ultimately paired people with similar stories and connected them over the phone. Imagine NPR’s StoryCorps, but with complete strangers. The resulting conversations were sweet and strange and totally unique.

One audience-participation approach to mark the 50th anniversary of MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech was to invite people who attended the March on Washington to share their stories and photos from the event. The New York Times did this, and produced some beautiful stories. At iReport, we decided to use the landmark as a way to encourage our audience to reflect on the state of race relations in 2013, with the idea that racism still exists but perhaps in more subtle forms than it did 50 years ago. Taking cues from the September 11 project, we issued a simple invitation: Share your stories of everyday racism.

Again, we received hundreds of responses. Many of them were honest, angry and difficult to read. Out of those submissions, we selected five and turned them into short profiles, accompanied by striking black-and-white illustrations.

Participatory storytelling was a key part of my job at CNN, so incorporating the audience in anniversary coverage wasn’t a stretch. That said, any journalist can do participatory storytelling, and most would benefit greatly from it.

Keep this approach in mind for the next big news milestone. For example, December 1, 2015, is the 60th anniversary of Rosa Parks’ refusal to move to the back of the bus. Just imagine the participatory storytelling possibilities.

Looking to your audience for inspiration can be a humbling and enlightening experience. I can’t count the times where we thought that we had a good story idea only to have our audience guide us toward another approach. More often than not, they helped us discover a superior story.

Meaningful audience participation is also a powerful way to build brand loyalty, something all news organizations strive for. The people represented in these projects were thrilled to see their contributions turned into something substantial. They proudly shared the projects with their friends and family and many of them became active members of the iReport community.

Audience participation doesn’t happen overnight, which makes anniversaries the perfect opportunity to build a relationship with your readers. With plenty of lead time, journalists have a valuable opportunity to issue an invitation to the audience, seek out meaningful contributions and produce something together that truly shines.

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Katie Hawkins-Gaar was Poynter's digital innovation faculty member. She ran the Leadership Academy for Women in Digital Media and was one half of the duo…
Katie Hawkins-Gaar

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