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Listen up for better community engagement

by: Amy Gahran |

In order to engage communities, local news sites need to listen to them -- really listen to them. This is the secret to creating journalism that better reflects and responds to communities, according to Molly de Aguiar and Josh Stearns of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.

For a few years, the Dodge Foundation, with support from the Knight Foundation, has been working to foster a healthy local news ecosystem in N.J. In his article Five Kinds of Listening for Newsrooms and Communities, Josh Stearns (director of journalism and sustainability for the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation) proposed these listening strategies:

1. Listening to sources and interviewees."Too often, journalists turn to the same voices. Part of listening better involves listening to find new sources and looking for new perspectives."

2. Listening for story ideas.Stearns described how WBEZ's project Curious City doesn't just listen to Chicagoans for story ideas, but also to gauge community priorities. "Rather than an editor deciding which story gets covered, the community gets to decide."

3. Listening for feedback.This means going beyond allowing website comments, to actually creating venues where stakeholders can respond to reporting in a sustained way. He notes that the multi-state education news site Chalkbeat has a Reader Advisory Board that guides their coverage, and holds separate reader feedback events.

4. Listening for understanding and context.This goes beyond the practice of talking to community sources "on background." Rather, it's about "listening to the concerns, passions, challenges and hopes of local communities. Understanding the lived experiences of people in different parts of our community, ask new questions in our stories, and challenge our assumptions."

5. Listening for relationships.At its core, community engagement is a way to foster more meaningful relationships with our communities -- rooted in trust, empathy, transparency and accountability. And also, "Sometimes in a relationship we just need to listen because someone else needs to be heard. Listening for the sake of listening, for the sake of showing up and being present for others, is critical to building trusting relationships."

Molly de Aguilar, media and communications program director for Dodge, noted that listening well takes time and effort, over the long haul. These are resources that independent local news sites often don't have to spare. She also observed that the challenges to community listening differ between larger sites in this emerging ecosystem, and smaller ones.

"Here in N.J., we have a lot of smaller mom & pop hyperlocal sites. They feel a lot of tension to feed the beast of their news cycle. It takes time to go out and build relationships in public, to cultivate new sources. They definitely don't have the manpower for that," she said. "They do have the advantage that they're embedded in their communities, and they understand value of meaningful relationships. But it's hard for them to prioritize community listening."

"Meanwhile the larger sites often resist. It's as if they think that concerted listening might compromise their objectivity; that they couldn't maintain objectivity about a community if they really know people well."

Fortunately, there's a considerable payoff for making the effort to listen. "We see that it’s clearly translating into revenue and investment by the community into the future of local news" de Aguiar said. "Local news organizations that invest in these continuous feedback loops get rewarded with their community investing back in them."

This can directly translate into revenue. "If you make a concerted effort to say, have public editorial meetings, or host community forums, people in your community will get to know and trust you. They'll know you're doing something in service to their community. They'll often be more willing to pay for all sorts of services based on built genuine relationships," she said.

Foundations and other local journalism funders have a potential role to play here. "This is a real opportunity for to provide relatively small amounts of money to give local sites some space, and to push to experiment around community listening," de Aguiar said. "When small sites are already struggling with capacity and feel beleaguered, a small $5000 grant from local or national funder can make a different in how they engage their community as part of their regular operations."

Amy Gahran

Amy Gahran is a journalist, editor, trainer, entrepreneur, strategist, and media consultant based in Boulder, Colorado. In addition to writing
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