In June 2020, Carolina Public Press launched a six-part series about how COVID-19 was affecting high-risk individuals over 65 in rural North Carolina. To better connect with residents across the state, the nonprofit newsroom used the SMS texting platform GroundSource to reach people directly. 

Carolina Public Press was one of 34 local newsrooms to receive support from the Community Listening and Engagement Fund’s COVID-19 Response Fund, which helped publishers actively listen and produce relevant news coverage for the rapidly evolving needs of their communities during the early stages of the pandemic in 2020.

At the height of the pandemic last year, newsrooms in the CLEF COVID-19 Response Fund produced news coverage that used platforms to include community members in the reporting process during a time where people needed to be connected more than ever before. Developing news that actively reaches the community, especially silenced communities, informs and educates people who normally cannot access reliable information. 

Beyond the immediate crisis, these projects helped participating newsrooms make organizational shifts in internal strategy, enabled newsrooms to learn to tell new kinds of stories, help expand their efforts to reach new audiences, and keep their business sustainable. 

Most organizations that participated in the program reported an increase in readers through their engagement efforts. Many also mentioned that they were still trying to figure out a way to retain these new audience members. 

Launched in 2018, CLEF was a project of The News Integrity Initiative, Democracy Fund, The Lenfest Institute for Journalism, and Knight Foundation. The grant-making initiative was designed to help news organizations produce relevant and trusted coverage for the diverse audiences they serve. 

CLEF subsidized newsrooms’ tools and services that were designed to help publishers engage with their communities. They included: Hearken, GroundSource, Coral by Vox Media, The Listening Post Collective, and DocumentCloud/MuckRock. 

Newsrooms reported an increase in meaningful exchanges of information between community members and reporters by using Hearken, a Q&A and data collection engagement management system, and the Listening Post Collective, a community collective that mentors community media organizations in developing ways to reach the community. The exchanges resulted in new kinds of stories being produced because they could more easily ascertain what their community wanted to know about the pandemic. 

New strategies

The CLEF COVID-19 Response Fund helped publishers meet audience needs in a moment of crisis, but the use of these new tools required organizations to shift their internal staff structures and adapt to a new way of reaching out to their readers for feedback and responses on news stories and podcast episodes. 

Asking focused questions on specific topics makes it easier for audience members to reply, The Tampa Bay Times learned through its use of Hearken. The Times used Hearken to ask readers what they wanted to know about how shopping and retail experiences have been impacted by the pandemic. As well as, expanding its “Florida Wonders” project to see if Hearken could benefit the publication in learning what appeals to its readers. By using the Hearken tool, the Tampa Bay Times’ engagement team learned various ways to get reader responses, including the need to offer several audience prompts in order to receive a satisfying number of responses.

The Spokane, Wash.-based Spokesman-Review changed its workflows to better collaborate to support its use of the Hearken tool. It maximized its collaborative efforts and improved internal communication. 

Hearken emphasized the importance of collaboration that became useful in making a marketing email. Also, the employees of various departments are now more familiar with each other because of the teamwork from using Hearken, and the paper expects it will be beneficial for future projects.

With help from the Listening Post Collective team, The Cicero Independiente, a bilingual newsroom covering the Chicago suburb of Cicero, identified ways it can provide stability and accuracy for community members. For example, one story provided an insight into how the 2020 election — both at the national and local level — affected the community. The Listening Post helped the Independiente communicate with community members about the ways the local and national politics affected them. 

“Overall, the Listening Post Collective has helped us determine how our day-to-day work can build towards a long-term vision of incorporating community engagement in all areas of our work, all the time, ” the paper said.

Reaching underserved communities 

The tools also allowed newsrooms to include historically underrepresented audiences which is especially important considering how BIPOC communities have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 infections and experienced slower state-level pandemic responses than other communities. Equally important was the challenge of trying to figure out a way to retain their new and growing audience.  

Minnesota Public Radio used GroundSource to reach communities, establish legitimacy, and become more attentive to community members’ needs and interests. The pandemic impacted Minnesota Public Radio’s on-the-ground coverage, so the newsroom needed a new way to engage with its listeners. GroundSource provided them with the ability to message their listeners to ask specific questions that pertained to their needs, such as back-to-school planning and mask mandates.    

Still, MPR recognized that it must improve its “cultural fluency within the organization in order to better support ongoing and future engagement with Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) communities across Minnesota.” 

The Miami public media outlet WLRN News similarly wanted to develop new ways to build a relationship with disconnected communities. It used the Listening Post Collective to reach out to Creole-speaking areas in South Florida and published stories that highlighted their struggles during the pandemic. It published a story on how young Haitian-Americans are using their platform to bring awareness of the need for political and economic prosperity in their community. It also reported on how the Biden Administration’s economic plan intends to not leave out the Haitian community. It has also shifted its internal strategy by using its experience with the Listening Post to maintain the relationships with its new sources to keep providing coverage on the Haitian and Haitian-American communities in South Florida.  

“Through various conversations with members of the Haitian American community, we’ve learned that there is no one size fits all approach to engaging with this one particular section of our audience, much less the broader, even more, diverse population of our audience as a whole,” the station said. 

This style of engagement-driven coverage led to bigger audiences and deeper relationships with existing audiences, some of the participating newsrooms said. 

Washington City Paper’s internal data showed that members who have “engaged in high-touch audience listening activities” were more likely to subscribe to its email newsletters and become paying members. Chicago-based Injustice Watch used community listening strategies shared through Hearken workshops and saw a 300% increase in individual gifts in 2020. Minnesota Public Radio, meanwhile, said it believed that GroundSource’s SMS texting platform helped deepen relationships as its news audience grew by about 20% in 2020 over the prior year. And The Current Media in Lafayette, La. attracted 203 new email leads from Coral Q&As. 

Capacity challenges

Despite the benefits experienced by the organizations participating in CLEF, the three biggest challenges organizations reported associated with these tools included: staff capacity, staff buy-in, and interface issues.

Most organizations didn’t have the capacity to keep up with the number of questions and responses they were getting from the community. Many organizations were too small to have a full-time staff member who could take charge and efficiently sort through the increased volume of responses generated through the call-outs via the various tools. 

Even though San José Spotlight found GroundSource to be helpful in reaching more readers, it was not easy to collect information. The publication noted staff capacity as its biggest challenge with managing responses.  “We only have one staff member dedicated to crafting text messages and campaigns to send out to readers on a daily basis.” 

There are organizations that felt they would better benefit from the applications with audience engagement if they had more staff members. The organizations with the capacity to collect the data saw this as a tool that would not be used regularly. Then, some staff members reported that they did not find it useful at all.  

The Gazette, from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, said it hopes to continue to encourage reporters to utilize engagement strategies to serve its readers, “Once we got over the challenge of creating focused prompts, the biggest challenge was getting staff to continue to experiment and use the tool, instead of seeing it as a one-off opportunity,” it said.

The CLEF grant-making initiative has brought relief to many news organizations and supported the change for more diverse reporting at a critical time. Despite staffing challenges, many publishers still saw growth and promising results from their approach to engagement journalism. 

The CLEF COVID-19 Fund was born in a moment of immediate crisis, but even as we hopefully move on from the pandemic, the lessons learned and practices implemented will continue to ensure that communities are served with valuable journalism. 

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