August 28, 2018

In April, 34 news organizations received grants to help them better listen to their communities.

Those grants came from the Community Listening and Engagement Fund, which works with two projects — Hearken, an engagement platform, and GroundSource, which works through mobile messaging. 

Miami-based WhereBy.Us’ newsrooms launched a series on homelessness in Seattle, a voter-guide in Miami and projects in Orlando and Portland to answer people’s questions about their cities.

“So far, using these two tools has led to more frequent reader participation in the stories we publish,” said WhereBy.Us growth editor Alexandra Smith in an email. “We've always asked for community input, but the tools help give it structure and a schedule. Plus the tools have given us a way to discuss our reporting process more regularly and leverage our community's knowledge when looking for answers to their questions.”

Now, 18 more newsrooms will join CLEF with more than $100,000 in grants to use Hearken and GroundSource for engagement.  

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Sixty newsrooms applied for this round of grants, according to a press release. CLEF is funded by The News Integrity Initiative, Democracy Fund, the Knight Foundation and the Lenfest Institute for Journalism. (Disclosure: Poynter has received funding from Democracy Fund and Knight and has working relationships with all those organizations.) 

CLEF launched in January with $650,000 aimed at helping between 50 and 75 newsrooms with engagement over the next two years.

It’s a process working to help newsrooms “engage more diverse voices and outside perspectives in their news decision-making,” according to the press release, and it's also great for business, said Hearken co-founder and CEO Jennifer Brandel, “because engagement builds deeper relationships, which improves the likelihood of financial support through subscriptions, donations, or paid sponsorships of engagement focused work.” 

For newsrooms where there’s communication between the editorial and business sides, “they're reporting back to us that Hearken-powered stories convert readers to paid subscribers at more than double the average rate,” Brandel said in an email. “It just makes sense: if you, as a reader, see that a newsroom is including you and serving your information needs directly, you're going to be more likely to want to reciprocate and support them.”

Engagement also led to higher numbers of newsletter subscribers, she said, and projects using Hearken are getting valuable sponsorship and underwriting.

“I believe engagement can be the key for turning the newsroom from a cost center to a revenue generator,” Brandel said. “Once newsrooms have tightened all the leaky parts of their funnel, there isn't much more they can do to change their financial outlook. But if they open up their process of journalism through engagement, suddenly every story becomes an opportunity for bringing in new people to the fold, and deepening relationships with those already in it, not to mention making work that better reflects the community and their needs.”

Wisconsin’s Racine County Eye is one local newsroom in the grant’s second round. That newsroom will use GroundSource’s SMS service to focus on unemployment and underemployment among African Americans. In Denver, The Colorado Independent will use Hearken to find issues that matter to readers around the election and politics.

Here’s the full list of newsrooms in the second round:

City Limits, New York City; The Day, New London, Connecticut; Resolve Philadelphia; Racine County Eye, Racine, Wisconsin; Scalawag Magazine, Durham, North Carolina; Sonoma West Publishers, Healdsburg, California; The Reading Eagle, Reading, Pennsylvania; WHYY, Philadelphia; WKSU, Ohio; WWNO, New Orleans; The Colorado Independent, Denver; Issue Media Group, Detroit; Ensia at The Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota – Minneapolis; Orb Media, Washington D.C; Iowa State Daily at Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa; The Daily Tar Heel at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; The Chronicle at Duke University – Durham, North Carolina; University of Miami.

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Kristen Hare teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to serve and cover their communities as Poynter's local news faculty member. Before joining faculty…
Kristen Hare

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