A Journalist’s Guide to Using Zoom for Community Engagement

Max Resnik
Published in
7 min readMay 15, 2020


On March 14th, 2020, the New York Public Library closed all of their neighborhood branches. NYC DOE schools closed for the remainder of the school year the following day. On March 16th, the Local Voices Network hosted our first digital community conversation in partnership with the Center for Community Media at the Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY. That conversation, featuring Census 2020 outreach workers from the Yemeni American Merchants Association, is an important time capsule. A group of community members grapple with how to adapt in-person census outreach to align with best practices for physical distancing.

Hear more from Labeb here

Over the past two months, beginning when Americans started physical distancing, the Local Voices Network has hosted dozens of small group community conversations utilizing Zoom. We’ve worked with news organizations across the country to host larger town hall meetings and more focused topical small group conversations. This digital work builds off of our pre-COVID-19 in-person collaborations with libraries, community organizations and local reporters. As critical decisions are being made about resources, health care and public safety, it’s important for community members to have space to gather and share questions and experiences that might otherwise be overlooked. We’ve found Zoom to be an effective tool for hosting these intimate digital conversations. We’ve put together this short guide to help think through your digital gatherings, from the larger philosophical questions to the nitty gritty of the tech. If you are interested in collaborating with LVN to train facilitators and host conversations for your own communities and audiences, please reach out to us at hello@lvn.org.

Why Gather Online?

Gathering in discussion and conversation is critical for building trust, developing relationships with your community and for providing an opportunity for your community members to connect with each other. Digital conversations on Zoom are accessible by audio and videoconferencing. Events, which might have been inaccessible in-person to community members who lack transportation or for parents in need of childcare, become much more accessible online. Digital conversations provide space for your audience to share stories, support and resources with each other while offering reporters a chance to listen in to the ways that people make meaning amidst a torrent of misinformation and daily information overload. If done right, participants will leave feeling heard and connected.

What do you need to set up prior to the conversation?

We have a Zoom pro account, which allows us to host up to 100 participants at a time. Most of our conversations are intentionally small (4–8 participants) but the pro account allows for town halls that can be split into breakout rooms. Co-hosts — colleagues or trained community facilitators who hold space for discussion — hold space for discussion in these breakout rooms. Zoom has multiple ways to tweak your meeting settings but here are the setting we use for our conversations:

  • We allow the chat function but disable private chat so that there aren’t back-channel conversations that can’t be moderated by the host of the conversation. (more on how we use the chat function in conversations below)
  • The waiting room function is enabled, allowing the host of the meeting to cross-reference the names of the people looking to join the meeting with a list of pre-registered attendees.
  • We mask the telephone numbers of participants, to protect their privacy.
  • We use screen sharing sparingly and turn off that function for participants. ‘Annotation’ (the ability of participants to draw on other screens) is turned off in our conversations.

We require people to pre-register for conversations. This allows us to anticipate the correct number of hosts needed for breakout rooms. We don’t require a password to join to maximize the ease of access while trying to prevent Zoombombing. We recommend you familiarize yourself with the meeting settings, customize them for your own calls and communicate to your participants what to expect when they join the conversation.

What roles are needed for your team?

Each conversation needs a host and, ideally, at least one co-host from your organization who knows the run-of-show and can assist with technical questions and support. The hosts of the conversation act as a combination maitre d and producer for the event. For larger events, we recommend having partners (from your organization or trained community partners) for every 8–10 additional registrants. Participant drop-off for digital events can be similar to in-person gatherings. For events with low participation, these co-hosts can serve as additional participants. For larger events, you can use a shared google document to identify which host will be in which assigned breakout room and which participants should be assigned as well. The re-name function can be used as a space for people to identify which breakout room they are assigned to.

In the flow of the event, it’s important to have a space to communicate with all of the co-hosts. This could be a slack channel or a group sms conversation on WhatsApp. Facilitation takes focus, so we recommend using these communication methods sparingly during the conversation and breakout room.

What happens during the conversation?

The Local Voices Network trains community members to facilitate and lead small group conversations. Town halls with dozens of participants ramp up the pressure for people to get a key sentence or message heard. Smaller group conversations hold space for collective meaning making and allow for more depth and nuance in a conversation. We’ve used the breakout room function on Zoom to split larger events into more manageable groups (4–8 participants per conversation) each led by a trained facilitator. Here’s the general flow of an LVN Zoom conversation

  1. Participants register for a conversation through a link on our website or through links posted by a partner media organization in a newsletter, article or social media post. If your community members lack access to reliable broadband, you might want to use your organization’s phone number for people to text or call into to register for the conversation.
  2. When participants register they receive a welcome message with information about what they can expect from the event. We link out to lvn.org/zoom for people who are using videoconferencing for the first time.
  3. Zoom’s waiting room function is an important place to message expectations for people looking to participate. For each LVN conversation we list the start time for the conversation and when the room closes. We stop allowing participants to join the meeting after the first 5–10 minutes so as not to disrupt groups that are already in a conversation.
  4. We allow people to join our zoom rooms 10–15 minutes prior to the start of the conversation in order to troubleshoot any audio or video issues before the conversation begins.
  5. When people join the conversations they are oriented towards a few features available on Zoom, including the chat box, the display options to view other participants and the ability to rename themselves. Just as you would need to make time for people to accustom themselves to a physical gathering space (where are the bathrooms, where are the snacks, etc.) you should make sure that people feel comfortable and welcome to participate in your digital space.
  6. Once the group is online and comfortable, the host of the conversation welcomes all of the participants and explains what people can expect (length of the conversation, breakout rooms, whether the conversation is on or off the record, etc.) and then send people into breakout rooms where the co-hosts facilitate the conversations.
  7. We’ve found that the chat function is a great place for facilitators to set expectations around the order that participants will be invited to speak. Online spaces lack the social cues we’re accustomed to when speaking. One key role for the facilitator is to make sure that everyone who wants to share in the smaller groups has the space to do so. When I host, I’ll say the names of the participants in order at the beginning of a round of discussion and type them in the chat so people can prepare. We reorganize the list of names for each round so it isn’t always the same people sharing or responding.

What happens after the conversation?

LVN conversations are all recorded, transcribed and made searchable on our digital platform. After conversations are finished, we identify story leads for our news partners that could be personal experiences, questions raised by participants or examples of misinformation/rumors. After participating in an LVN conversation, participants are given access to the entire collection of conversations in their geographic region. They have the opportunity to attend a facilitator training or to gather an additional group of friends or relatives to participate in a conversation. If your organization runs a membership or subscription program there could be opportunities to invite participants to join those systems.

We invite you to join the Local Voices Network in conversation with members of your community and others from across the country for an opportunity to speak and be heard. While physically distant, we can maintain and support digital social connection towards a healthier and more connected future.



Max Resnik

Max is building the Documenters Network at City Bureau — find him @maxresnik