Community Listening and Engagement Fund announces 18 new grants

(August 28, 2018) — The Community Listening and Engagement Fund (CLEF) today announced that it is awarding more than $100,000 to 18 news organizations as part of its second round of grant making.

The first two rounds of CLEF funding support newsrooms using two community-listening services, Hearken and GroundSource. Hearken allows news organizations to include the public as a story develops, from conception to publication, resulting in more inclusive, original reporting and helping newsrooms create new revenue streams. GroundSource uses mobile messaging and voice to build two-way relationships with audiences. The initial results from the first round of CLEF funding have been encouraging. Selected examples are provided below.

The second group of CLEF grantees was chosen from nearly 60 applicants, and they included a wide variety of news organizations: there are 10 local outlets, one statewide newsroom, one national publisher, two topic-based publishers, three student newspapers, and one university. CLEF is funded by a consortium of journalism and democracy-oriented foundations including The News Integrity Initiative, Democracy Fund, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Lenfest Institute for Journalism.

This CLEF cohort will use Hearken and GroundSource to cover a diverse range of topics, such as the employment boom in Racine County, Wisconsin thanks to a new plant being built by Taiwanese telecom giant Foxconn (Racine County Eye) and the upcoming midterm elections (City Limits, The Colorado Independent, The Day, etc.).

Since both Hearken and GroundSource help newsrooms engage more diverse voices and outside perspectives in their news decision-making, the funders of CLEF sought newsrooms with a commitment to diversity in hiring and staffing their operations. Demographic data was gathered from the CLEF-awarded newsrooms. Collectively averaged, the newsrooms staffs were 23% minority and 51% female, compared to 2017 ASNE diversity survey averages of 16.6% minority and 39.1% female.

In the first round, announced in April 2018, CLEF awarded subsidies for Hearken and GroundSource to 34 organizations. The feedback from newsrooms has been positive, with several citing the advent of greater diversity of news sources and a cultural shift in newsrooms placing stronger emphasis on community engagement. Several have reported meaningful increases in new newsletter subscribers. We have highlighted a few of these examples:

Mother Jones embarked with Hearken on a series of questions such as how people respond to the Supreme Court’s travel ban ruling. The most successful stories have benefited from topic timeliness and Hearken’s ease of use. Hearken helps share responses across newsroom teams from a story’s conception to delivery. For example, the series “Tell Us Why You Quit Meat” netted more than 300 responses and produced interesting high-quality stories across platforms – online, on social media and on The Mother Jones Podcast. Mother Jones has done eight separate audience call-outs through Hearken, receiving a combined total of 882 submissions since mid-June. When given the opportunity to sign up for a Mother Jones newsletter in the Hearken embed, 46 percent of those responding to a call-out asked to be subscribed.

Two Seattle newsrooms from the first round used Hearken to collect questions from their audiences about homelessness, a huge issue the city is facing. The Seattle Times has received more than 800 questions, and when they put three questions up for a vote, nearly 5,000 votes came in. The Project Homeless team is reporting out the answer to the winning question now, and is very excited about how the question-asker can participate. Similarly, The Evergrey invited questions about homelessness along with seven other news organizations that came together to publish the same call-out and share access to all 400+ questions received. The Evergrey, GeekWire and Real Change have already answered many questions, and the other partner newsrooms are expected to publish answers to questions that were publicly-selected through voting rounds in the coming weeks. They also hosted a Facebook Live conversation discussing some of the questions they received.

With GroundSource, Science Friday focused on a weeklong audience engagement project during “Cephalopod Week,” titled “Cephalopod of the Day.” The project distributed daily texts to participants including fun facts and scientific information on different species of the cephalopod class. During the weeklong project, 836 people signed up for “Cephalopod Of The Day,” 348 of whom were engaged with the final project—exceeding Science Friday’s expectations for the test run of the platform. Thanks to interactive components of GroundSource, 162 original engagements become newsletter subscribers. The response rate was at 37.2 percent – a very high rate for audience engagement.

Better Government Association (BGA) deployed both Hearken and GroundSource on different projects targeting accountability in local government and public projects. “Trapped: Neglected Elevators Put Chicago’s Public Housing Residents at Risks,” is one of many ongoing projects that tackle marginalized communities through inventive audience engagement tools. BGA is also creating a database for the audience to text an address and the service will respond with inspections, 911 calls and other data related to their address. Unique visitors per month were up slightly but new newsletter subscribers jumped from 157 to 533 during the reporting period.

The following newsrooms are the second cohort of CLEF recipients. A selection of projects is also provided below:

Local newsrooms:

City Limits – New York City, NY – GroundSource

The Day – New London, CT – Hearken

Resolve Philly – Philadelphia, PA – Hearken

Racine County Eye – Racine, WI – GroundSource

Scalawag Magazine – Durham, NC – Hearken

Sonoma West Publishers – Healdsburg, CA – Hearken

The Reading Eagle – Reading, PA – Hearken

WHYY – Philadelphia, PA – GroundSource

WKSU – Ohio – Hearken

WWNO – New Orleans, LA – GroundSource

State newsrooms:

The Colorado Independent – Denver, CO – Hearken

National newsrooms:

Issue Media Group – Detroit, MI – GroundSource

Topic-based newsrooms:

Ensia at The Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota – Minneapolis, MN – Hearken and GroundSource

Orb Media – Washington D.C. – GroundSource

Student newsrooms:

Iowa State Daily at Iowa State University – Ames, IA – Hearken

The Daily Tar Heel at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill – Chapel Hill, NC – GroundSource

The Chronicle at Duke University – Durham, NC – Hearken


University of Miami – Miami, FL – Hearken & GroundSource

Selected Round-Two Projects:


The Colorado Independent plans to use Hearken around its elections and politics coverage, to make sure they’re focusing on issues that have the most impact on and are important to their audience. With the first wide-open gubernatorial race in a generation, the small, women-led newsroom knows much is at stake for the state. Voters will have the chance to decide the balance of power in a legislature that will consider issues that impact growth, affordable housing, oil and gas policy, and civil rights. What The Colorado Independent learns from audience members will inform its coverage during the election, and in the months after, as staff continue to focus on the intersection of policy, politics and daily life. The newsroom looks forward to working with Hearken to engage readers beyond a traditional news coverage approach, allowing input from audience members to shape its coverage.


Racine County Eye will use GroundSource to focus the issues that most affect people of color in the community, namely unemployment and underemployment for African-Americans. This marginalized group is often unheard and harder to reach. With the help of GroundSource’s SMS service, Racine County Eye hopes to gain insight into how people navigate the systems around employment which will leverage its employment news, open a door to useful sponsored content from employers and establish a resource page for job seekers. The newsroom’s focus on providing information pathways to employment is tied to a Foxconn factory’s construction nearby. Having a system in place to communicate back and forth with workers and residents will assist Racine County Eye in finding stories of maximum community interest and value.

Hearken & GroundSource:

Ensia, a nonprofit magazine focused on environmental challenges and solutions, will use Hearken to have the public recommend story ideas to expand the range of topics they cover and better understand their audience. They also plan to use Hearken specifically to help the newsroom develop event ideas to make sure their event strategy centers around what the audience wants. They will use GroundSource at their events to take answers from the audience and create a feedback loop for engagement after the event.


About the Community Listening and Engagement Fund (CLEF)

CLEF was created to help newsrooms build their muscles and workflows for listening, so they can match their strength in content creation and distribution. The word “clef” is French for “key” and is also the name of a symbol indicating musical pitch. It’s through better listening that journalists and newsrooms can work in better harmony toward an informed and empowered citizenry.

CLEF will run one more funding cycle in 2018. Applications will be open for the next cohort in September 2018. Return to this page for more information.

About The News Integrity Initiative

The News Integrity Initiative is a philanthropic fund and a global coalition of newsrooms, nonprofits, technologists, and academics to foster mutually trusting relationships between journalists and the communities they serve, while also tackling the spread of disinformation, and nurturing respectful and inclusive civic dialogue. NII is a project of the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY.

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About Democracy Fund

Democracy Fund is a bipartisan foundation created by eBay founder and philanthropist Pierre Omidyar to help ensure that our political system can withstand new challenges and deliver on its promise to the American people. Since 2011, Democracy Fund has invested more than $70 million in support of a healthy democracy, including modern elections, effective governance, and a vibrant public square.
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About the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Knight Foundation is a national foundation with strong local roots. We invest in journalism, in the arts, and in the success of cities where brothers John S. and James L. Knight once published newspapers. Our goal is to foster informed and engaged communities, which we believe are essential for a healthy democracy.

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About The Lenfest Institute for Journalism

The Lenfest Institute for Journalism is a non-profit organization whose sole mission is to develop and support sustainable business models for great local journalism. The Institute was founded in 2016 by  the late cable television entrepreneur H.F. (Gerry) Lenfest. Lenfest gifted to the Institute an initial endowment of $20 million, which has since been supplemented by other donors, for investment in innovative news initiatives, new technology, and new models for sustainable journalism. The Institute’s goal is to help transform the news industry in the digital age to ensure that high-quality local journalism remains a cornerstone of our democracy.

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About Hearken

Hearken enables news organizations to listen to and engage the public as a story develops from conception to publication. Their unique public-powered methodology and engagement platform has lead to top-performing, differentiated and award-winning stories while also growing newsletter signups, paid subscribers and membership. An annual subscription to Hearken includes expert consulting, training, their custom platform, data reports and entry to a global community of best practices. Developed out of WBEZ as part of AIR’s 2012 Localore initiative, Hearken is now at work in more than 100 newsrooms around the world in various formats (TV, radio, newspaper, digital) and content types (feature investigations, breaking news, beat reporting, live events, topic-based or geographic-based coverage).

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About GroundSource

GroundSource is a platform newsrooms use to build and scale two-way relationships with audiences and communities via mobile messaging and voice. It’s also a service that helps newsrooms imagine and implement new ways to reach out to communities, build trust, and becoming more responsive to audience needs and interests. GroundSource is in service at dozens of newsrooms, civic organizations and non-profits around the US, and around the world.
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