Learning to Listen: Building a culture of engagement in newsrooms

Given the current national crisis in trust and business models for journalism, many newsrooms now recognize the need for increased transparency and community connection. Through the practice of what is increasingly being called “engaged journalism,” news producers are finding new ways to bolster audience trust and buy-in, consulting with readers and listeners throughout the entire reporting process. Foundations have played a major role in supporting engaged journalism efforts.

This analysis takes a closer look at one such investment: CLEF: The Community Listening and Engagement Fund. Funded by the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, the News Integrity Initiative (NII), the Democracy Fund, and the Knight Foundation, CLEF is a “fund to help news organizations better listen to, engage and produce more relevant and differentiated content for the public they serve by using models, tools and consulting designed for this purpose.”

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Launched in January 2018, the $650,000 fund supports adoption of audience engagement and newsroom transparency tools and services, including Hearken, GroundSource, the Listening Post Collective, DocumentCloud/MuckRock, and the Coral Project’s “Talk.” Each of these purpose-driven services has been developed over the course of many years with support from foundations, donors, and public dollars. Now, they are adapting to the marketplace in different ways—finding investors and paying customers, reconsidering their platforms and business models, and evolving in tandem with the larger field of journalism.

“Ideally, the integration of audience-facing tools and services will lead to more engaged communities, more informed storytelling, and deeper, more trusting relationships.”

In part, CLEF was designed to give these organizations more runway to work with clients, refine their offerings, and learn by doing. Primarily, however, CLEF connects news organizations to these tools and services through subsidies to use them— plus associated consulting assistance from the providers to ensure that the services are integrated successfully within their newsrooms.

Ideally, the integration of audience-facing tools and services will lead to more engaged communities, more informed storytelling, and deeper, more trusting relationships. In some cases, news outlets are even reconceptualizing their role in communities altogether — putting service first and joining libraries, universities, and other local institutions in convening constituents both offline and online around pressing civic issues. In turn, the hope is that this will lead to revenue: subscribers and members, grants from foundations, sales of tickets and merchandise, and more.

CLEF fills in an important gap in philanthropic support for new forms of journalism. While journalists are often encouraged to become entrepreneurs and develop innovative new ways to connect with audiences, there is a gap in dollars for adoption of new tools and services. This can be frustrating to grantmakers, who spend years supporting development only to see promising services fail to thrive. What’s more, because foundations tend to support nonprofit outlets and organizations, for-profit newsrooms and service providers are often left out of the puzzle. CLEF subsidizes the cost of using the services by way of the newsrooms and then support flows to the service providers. In turn, the service providers have not only more income but a new cohort of users to help refine their offerings.

Has this happened?

In the first half of 2019, Philadelphia-based media strategy firm Dot Connector Studio worked with the Lenfest Institute for Journalism to evaluate the first year of the CLEF initiative. Our initial learning questions were:

  • How are these services changing relationships between newsrooms and users?
  • Is working with these services generating more engagement?
  • How are these services changing news content?
  • Are they helping the outlets to generate more revenue? We explored these questions through a combination of interview and survey data, reviewing grant reports, and participating in cohort meetings. We took a developmental evaluation approach, which is well-suited to complex, experimental projects with multiple participants and factors. Much like engaged journalism itself, developmental evaluation takes into account the perspectives of the subjects and evolves in dialogue and participation with them, suggesting areas for further learning.

Not all of the grantees had finished reporting by May 2019, when we completed this research. As a result, we were unable to cleanly compare to what extent these tools and services are helping news outlets generate revenue. However, we were able to identify key insights based on this initial research.

Key insights for newsrooms

1. Audience engagement tools work — if you work them

Many CLEF newsrooms reported increased levels of engagement around new reporting avenues, as well as the chance to deepen use of existing content. However, this took consistent effort and a well-crafted ask — especially when finding meaningful ways to reach out to underserved audiences.

2. Success factors include a receptive newsroom culture, leadership buy-in, and a dedicated staff member.

Not all reporters or editors in the CLEF newsrooms were keen to pivot to engaged journalism strategies, but many reported that even the exercise of focusing on audience engagement led to an internal shift in thinking for their staff. Successful newsrooms often had “engagement superstars,” who not only have support to lead such efforts internally, but are also vitally involved in the national conversation about engaged journalism.

3. Engaging audiences takes significant time and capacity.

Newsrooms found that onboarding the tools, dealing with technical hurdles, and crafting successful strategies was more time-consuming than they anticipated. Personnel changes and lack of resources in an industry in flux also posed challenges. They requested more resources on best practices in creating workflows, successful use cases, impact measurement, and tying engagement to revenue.

Key insights for funders

1. Funders are playing a central role in shaping the engaged journalism field, which is now at a tipping point.

Through collaborating with one another, amplifying successful efforts, bolstering field-building, and incubating innovation, foundations have been central to sustaining engaged journalism, often in nonprofit newsrooms. Now, the field is at a vulnerable moment where it is being tested in the marketplace. Mission-driven goals and foundation timelines do not always mesh smoothly with the realities of running either a service business or a newsroom. This can cause friction.

2. Adoption of new tools and services is neither linear nor rapid.

Hearken and GroundSource were enthused and challenged by the influx of new users. The process of quickly bringing the CLEF newsrooms on board forced them to take a hard look at their services, technical infrastructure, revenue models, and assumptions about use cases. Both made mid-course corrections to improve services in the long run, but posed disruptions to existing clients. Newsrooms also are dealing with their own business challenges. This means a simple tally of return customers will not tell the full story of this initiative, and outcomes might not be clear immediately.

3. Collecting meaningful metrics takes time and expertise.

It is difficult for grantees to devote resources to metrics collection given the shoestring budgets of many newsrooms, and the proliferation of different dashboards and proprietary data collection systems. Funders should consider supporting these efforts directly if they seek more rigorous evidence about the role that engaged journalism plays in strengthening audience relationships and generating revenue.

Photo courtesy of CLEF grantee El Tímpano.

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