Engaging readers around Ferguson: Lessons from 3 St. Louis newsrooms

For St. Louis journalists, the events in Ferguson are a distinct opportunity to engage the community in conversation. The news just keeps coming: The August shooting of Michael Brown, a November grand jury non-indictment of police officer Darren Wilson, the March shooting of two cops during a protest. I was curious: How can (and do) journalists serve their communities in an ongoing, highly emotional situation like this one? So I made some calls.

Here are three techniques used by local newsrooms to engage readers with Ferguson news and the issues behind it.

1. Make the story easy to follow.

St. Louis Public Radio started a liveblog on Sunday night, Aug. 10, the day after Michael Brown was killed. The liveblog was updated continuously for several months.

Engagement editor Kelsey Proud said the news out of Ferguson on Aug. 10 was moving too quickly to do a traditional web article with updates, and the liveblog offered a way to show a more complete picture during a time when the story was developing, as Proud put it, “whip-fast.”

Proud said they looked to The Boston Globe’s coverage in 2013 of the Boston Marathon bombing for guidance.

St. Louis Public Radio used the liveblog to curate news from their own reporters, from other news organizations and from local leaders and officials on the ground. They then tried to echo the liveblog approach with their Twitter usage.

The St. Louis Post Dispatch also saw value in centralizing its coverage and making it easy to navigate. In February, the newspaper launched its Ferguson site, an effort to highlight the paper’s best coverage of the topic in one place. (Check out the American Journalism Review for more on how that site came together.)

St. Louis Magazine saw an opening to reach readers when complex reports were released, such as grand jury testimony and evidence about Darren Wilson’s fatal interaction with Michael Brown. A similar opportunity arose when the Department of Justice released its report on the Ferguson Police Department.

“Something we did on our website that was clearly successful was breaking those down to be digestible,” senior editor William Powell said.

The magazine published Powell’s 12 Takeaways from Officer Darren Wilson’s Testimony to the Grand Jury and Seven Shocking Findings From the Department of Justice’s Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department within a few hours of when those documents were released.

2. Invite community members to share their stories.

St. Louis Magazine’s November issue focused on race relations in and around St. Louis. The magazine invited a handful of community leaders to write essays that ran in the issue and online.

“Having those voices gave us credibility,” Powell said, and also gave the magazine more reach into the community. The contributors shared their essays with their own followers, on social media and in person.

The opinion departments of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and The Guardian US partnered in mid-August to collect readers’ stories about racial profiling by police.

The Post-Dispatch also partnered with other newsrooms for a project in the fall — again with The Guardian US, but additionally with Ebony.com, Colorlines, The St. Louis American and The St. Louis Riverfront Times. This second partnership focused on showcasing readers’ ideas about what to do next — possible solutions for problems with police, courts, education and race relations in general.

Not all efforts to hear new voices were big projects. More longstanding techniques were also useful in hearing from community members.

“We have definitely had a lot of letters to the editor, which I know is the traditional way that people have interacted with the paper,” said Beth O’Malley, online content coordinator and reader engagement editor for the Post-Dispatch.

And on St. Louis Public Radio, talk show segments where community members could call in and talk to guests on issues related to Ferguson served as a regular way for the station to hear from listeners.

3. Use events to connect.

St. Louis Public Radio sponsored a town hall forum in late August at a Ferguson church.

“It was quite a powerful evening,” Proud said. The event drew more than 200 people.

She said the event was a “touchpoint” for the station, and said it encouraged them to “involve younger members of the community in our work.”

“St. Louis Public Radio did an awesome job,” said Powell of St. Louis Magazine. The August event “was wildly successful and started a lot of conversations,” he said.

The radio station sponsored a second town hall forum this week, hosted by NPR’s Michel Martin, who also hosted the August forum.

St. Louis Public Radio is also using events to hear from people in the community as part of “The Listening Project.” The project is a grant-funded effort to talk about recommendations to reduce racial disparities in the region. While not initially about Ferguson, the project “tragically dovetailed with everything else that’s going on,” Proud said.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch has used events as a way to talk about and hear from the community about its journalism, particularly its photographs. The paper’s photographers have participated in several panels both locally and nationally, discussing their experiences in Ferguson and the editorial decisions behind their photo choices.

NEXT: How do local journalists prevent or cope with burnout while covering Ferguson?