Lunch and learn: Inside KPCC’s Feeding the Conversation engagement series
Earlier this summer, a group of education reporters and editors from Southern California Public Radio sat down with a group of parents and caregivers. They were meeting for lunch.
The gathering was part of the station’s Feeding the Conversation series. These gatherings bring together community members and journalists from the Los Angeles-based station’s brands — KPCC and LAist — to learn more about how coverage can be more relevant and reflective of the community.
This particular conversation was focused on education, but the series has covered a wide array of constituencies and topics.
This week in Solution Set we’ll dig into Feeding the Conversation to learn more about how KPCC uses the series to diversify its coverage, how it frames the discussions, and why food can be an important tool to bring together community members. (A quick disclosure: The Lenfest Institute has funded KPCC through the Community Listening and Engagement Fund, though this isn’t directly related to this report.)
Solution Set is a weekly report from The Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Every Thursday, we take an in-depth look at one rad thing in journalism, share lessons, and point you toward other useful resources.
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Here’s the TLDR
• The Challenge: Feeding the Conversation started almost by accident. KPCC was looking for a better way to speak with parents about Common Core requirements.
• The Strategy: Over the years, KPCC has developed a targeted focus for Feeding the Conversation. It identifies specific communities for these invitation-only discussions.
• The Numbers: Each gathering averages about 25 participants. Feed the Conversation has become a regular part of KPCC’s engagement strategy.
• The Lessons: The station intentionally creates discussion questions that encourage people to open up and foster honest conversations and transparency.
• The Future: KPCC is planning to hold Feeding the Conversation gatherings in additional locations around Los Angeles and online.
• Want to know more?: Scroll down to learn more about KPCC’s other engagement projects and how other news orgs are thinking about in-person discussions.
What ultimately became Feed the Conversation started out casually.
It was 2015, and Southern California Public Radio’s education editor was trying to report on the impacts of Common Core curriculum. But nobody was responding.
“We can’t get parents to talk about Common Core. We don’t really know what they want or need. We don’t know what they know,” said Ashley Alvarado, Southern California’s Public Radio’s director of community engagement.
So the station tried another tack: It invited parents from the LA school district over for lunch to discuss the issue.
Through its involvement in the Public Insight Network and with reporters’ own connections, the station, which goes by its call letters KPCC, was able to invite about a dozen parents to participate.
KPCC reporters sat around tables and chatted with the parents. Instead of asking the attendees explicitly what their challenges were, the discussion focused more broadly on Common Core and public education. This allowed the reporters to get more detail and have more nuanced conversations. (Scroll down to The Lessons for more on how KPCC’s team thought about how to best frame the questions and discussion topics.)
Within the first week, the station aired a number of stories that came directly from the lunch session with parents.
“Very quickly, we were like, oh, this worked,” Alvarado said. “So we started to think about other areas where we could do this.”
KPCC kept trying new ways to use the Feeding the Conversation approach.
Beyond discussions of education, it brought communities together to discuss issues around water issues and other topics. The station also used the Feeding the Conversation format to re-think Take Two, its midday local news show.
The show launched with a mandate to grow the station’s Latino and African American audiences, and while Alvarado said the show was doing a decent job attracting those listeners, it wanted to continue to diversify its audience, particularly with Asian American listeners. (“I’m speaking very broadly right now, and there are a ton of nuances and different experiences within these groups,” Alvarado said.)
It was during this time that KPCC really developed the strategy that it’s been able to apply with Feed the Conversation across the station and over a variety of topics.
Each Feeding the Conversation session tries to create a proactive environment for discussing the core issues. Instead of asking participants what media is doing incorrectly, the station asks people open-ended forward looking questions such as “Imagine mainstream media or KPCC is getting your story exactly right,” Alvarado said. “What would it look like and how would you realize it?” (More on this in the Lessons.)
Each session lasts 90 minutes. They are mostly always over lunch, and KPCC provides food. Each Feeding the Conversation gathering targets a specific community, and the station will conduct targeted outreach to make sure that the right people are there.
The @kpcc @laist education team is hosting conversations with parents and caregivers today, and I’m so grateful for these community members sharing their time and experiences…and for the journalists focused on intentional listening. pic.twitter.com/oinbvYO3No— Ashley Alvarado (@AshleyAlvarado) July 31, 2019
“The conversations are invite-only, but the invitation includes an invitation to suggest others who should be included,” Alvarado said.
The station aims to keep the gatherings at 25 people or less.
Participants are seated at tables. There are usually four to five attendees per table along with a KPCC journalist or two. The journalists and community members are given prompts to help guide the conversation, so the reporters aren’t required to conduct interviews or try and create soundbites.
“It allows them to be a participant. They’re not waiting for the quote,” Alvarado said.
These conversations then directly influence editorial coverage.
With Take Two, for example, the station brought in Asian American community members, who have since become regulars on the show.
“We were able to land sources on stories and interview subjects that we wouldn’t have had otherwise,” Alvarado said.
The station also always asks attendees to leave “parting words” on post-it notes as they’re leaving the session. These messages are then shared directly with the newsroom.
KPCC maintains a database of all the community members it engages with — both as part of Feeding the Conversation and in other environments — and every participant is added to the system. This way the station can keep track of every way it interacts with someone.
It is also sure to keep in touch with everyone who came to one of the lunch events, and it will report back how it utilized the information the attendees shared.
“These are moments in our relationship, they’re not the whole of our relationship,” she said. “Just about every person that I’ve had over for lunch, we continue to have conversations with them.”
Since launching in 2015, Feeding the Conversation gatherings have become a regular part of KPCC’s engagement strategy. Alvarado said the discussions are now just part of the station’s normal course of operations.
They range in size from 5 participants to as large as 55 participants. The station targets its outreach depending on the goal.
KPCC is able to cover most of its costs through trades its underwriting team makes with local catering companies. It’s also done similar trades for event spaces, though most are held in KPCC’s own offices in Pasadena.
“We’re able to do these on a shoestring and then have the reporters and editors who are a part of this get to experience that sense of discovery as opposed to trying to jump up and down and say, ‘Here’s a source you absolutely have to talk to.’ So many of us are used to getting pitched all the time, and this isn’t that.”
Just this year, the station has also started to track stories that have emerged out of its engagement efforts with LAist, the news site Southern California Public Radio acquired in 2018. Stories that come out of Feeding the Conversation — along with some other programs — are now tagged “You Told Us.”
“While those stories are a minority of the stories we do, their median performance out performs those that are done without any community engagement. That’s been the metric that matters the most to us in terms of engagement — the number of uniques, and the percentage that are local.”
• Framing is key: Alvarado and her team are very intentional about every step of the Feeding the Conversation process, and they focus on asking questions in a way that best elicits thoughtful responses from the community.
Call outs that focus on a deficit — such as “Why didn’t you vote?” — are less likely to get an answer than questions that aren’t solely focused on the negative.
Speaking at the ONA conference in September, Alvarado highlighted a few generic questions that illustrate the types of discussions she tries to facilitate in Feeding the Conversation. Here are some examples from the session’s slide deck:
- Imagine the media is getting your story totally right, what does it look like? How do you recognize it?
- As a fill in the blank, what are the things that keep you up at night?
- Tell me about a time you’ve had to make a tough decision (add related to issue you’re covering), where to do you go for resources or more information? Why?
Here’s what this approach looks like in practice. Alvarado shared some questions from a Feeding the Conversation discussion focused on Muslim experiences in Southern California:
- What role does Islam play in your everyday life? What do you most love about it?
- What role, if any, does a mosque play in your life? Are there any challenges facing mosques you think KPCC needs to cover?
- What do you want others to come to understand about the Muslim experience in Southern California? How can people become better informed?
- What questions do you hate being asked? What question do you most wish you were asked?
- Imagine a time when the mainstream media gets your story right. What does it look like?
Alvarado provides the questions to the journalists facilitating the conversations, but she also insctructs them to tweak the questions as needed in order to have the best conversation as possible. Here’s what she includes on the handout with the questions:
Please feel free to adjust these questions as you feel needed. Take the temperature of your table and proceed as you feel best. Also, we know that we are speaking with individuals, seeking their personal insights. We can stress the understanding that they don’t represent one monolithic, homogenous group
• Create a process: Feeding the Conversation discussions have become one of KPCC’s primary community engagement tools.
To most effectively facilitate the conversations, Alvarado created tools for reporters and editors to build out how they’d like to utilize the conversations.
“I have so many spreadsheets, you would not believe it,” Alvarado said, noting that she documents everything.
Reporters and editors are encouraged to come to the engagement team with ideas for Feeding the Conversation sessions. And when Alvarado gets pitches, she has a one-sheet that outlines the procedures for the discussions.
“It says at the beginning, your responsibility is to tell me or my team: what is the goal of doing one of these convenings, who are you trying to reach, and then we’ll work together in crafting an invitation and figuring out some of the details,” she said.
They’ll then create shared Google spreadsheets to document who is responsible for what — everything from crafting the invitation, finding the community members to invite, securing the food, and ensuring that there is adequate parking.
This process was developed over time, of course, but because it is in solid place now, KPCC is able to effectively and efficiently create the conversations.
• Food: Food is good. People like food. Eating together helps break down barriers and makes it easier to connect.
By holding the sessions over the lunch hour, it makes it easier for people to attend and fit it into their schedules.
“There’s something about a journalist asking you over for lunch. There’s something there,” she said.
It’s also beneficial for the reporters, Alvarado said. And having conversations over lunch makes it easier for them to attend.
“They’re not going in thinking they have a story quota that has to come out of it. They’re getting to go down, have some lunch, meet some people, get to see what their work means to community members — both in the best way and in a more challenging way when community members have been affected by acts of journalism,” she said.
Food can be an added expense, but if you can work out trades with local businesses or other underwriting opportunities, it’s a worthwhile addition to make folks feel more comfortable.
As KPCC moves forward with the programming, it’s trying out new ways to reach audiences — both in terms of technology and location.
While most of the Feeding the Conversation events have been held at KPCC’s studios, it’s looking at how it can hold more events around the city to be able to reach even more people. It’s also trying to figure out how it can best provide childcare to help parents attend.
The station has also been experimenting with text messaging. It recently held a series of Feeding the Conversation sessions around early childhood education and is now communicating with the discussion group over text.
Alvarado called it a “prototype,” but she was hopeful it would provide a way for people to join in when they couldn’t make it to one of the in-person gatherings.
“It’s going to be easier for people to participate, and a demonstration that we see them and see what they’re up against,” she said.
Want to know more?
• Alvarado and her team have exhaustively documented their engagement practices on their Medium page. It’s a terrific resource.
• The Local News Lab last week highlighted a case study of how KPCC uses events to reach audiences.
• We’ve highlighted a few exciting examples of how news organizations are meeting their communities IRL. Capital Public Radio in Sacramento used Story Circles to bring together people to discuss housing issues in the California capital. Your Voice Ohio is a collaborative effort to facilitate engaged conversations across the state of Ohio around issues that matter to people who live there.
Anything to add?
How is your newsroom using in-person gatherings to better understand your community? What’s worked — or not worked — for your newsroom? I’d love to share what you’ve learned with our broader community.
In other news, I want to share a quick update from our most recent report on The Discourse’s fundraising campaign.
In the story, I mentioned that the Canadian site was set to announce a boot camp for journalism entrepreneurs in Canada. The Discourse debuted the program, called the Independent News Challenge, this week.
Here’s how the company describes it:
The Discourse’s Independent News Challenge is a nine-week program where we are sharing what we’ve learned, mobilizing our resources, and rolling up our sleeves to help entrepreneur journalists and small publishers grow.
Are you a journalist with an idea for a project or a new outlet but don’t know where to start? Are you a small publisher filling a gap in coverage but feel like you’re not realizing your full potential? We are particularly interested in supporting BIPOC journalists and founders.
Interested in applying, eh? The deadline is Nov. 14.
That’s it for Solution Set this week. See you next Thursday!