Beyond Raccoons: Understanding the news needs of a community can be a hard climb (but we’re making it easier)

A raccoon scurries up the side of the UBS Tower in St. Paul, Minn., on Tuesday, June 12, 2018. (Evan Frost/Minnesota Public Radio via AP)

You can’t swing a live raccoon these days and not hit someone commenting on the decline of trust in news. Throw in calls for more listening, engagement, and relationship-building in journalism and you might have an impression of an industry genuinely motivated to change its ways.

Maybe, maybe not.

By a mix of temperament and geography, I’ve spent my career on the fringes of mainstream news — close enough to know its inner workings, but far enough away to be able to critique with dispassionate distance, and design tools and collaborations to try and help improve it.

The ideas I put my shoulder to tend to be ripped from the pages of The Elements of Journalism — namely that “Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth” and “Its first loyalty is to citizens.” I believe crowdsourcing — in all of its various forms — can get us closer to the truth, and that engagement and listening help us become more loyal to citizens. But at a time when journalism and entertainment are fusing, and what’s valued tends to be measured in clicks and shares, tools and projects that appeal to our democratic aspirations often bump up against the realpolitik of modern media. “What color is that dress?” tends to beat “How is our community doing, really?”

And so it goes with the newest initiative I’ve embarked on, with frequent collaborator Sarah Alvarez, creator of Outlier Media. We call it Pulse. It’s a lightweight, texting-based way to understand what kind of information people want and need. We’ve piloted it twice, thanks to funding from the Bettinger Innovation Fund for Journalism at Stanford University’s JSK Fellowships, and plan to modify and extend it to more newsrooms soon. Right now, Chalkbeat Detroit is incorporating Pulse, with Sarah’s help, into an education-focused project.

The Bettinger Fund for Innovations in Journalism funded the Pulse pilots

The idea is simple: To find out what kind of news and information people need, ask them.

Here’s how it works: The newsroom (using a variety of approaches) begins by recruiting a representative panel of residents from a community who agree to receive and respond to three texts a day. These texts ask about the hour-to-hour information needs of participants, emphasizing that they’re not asking about news because notions of news can vary dramatically, but instead about their curiosities and and whether they can find the information they’re looking for.

This is an actual back and forth with a panelist.

To encourage participation, two Pulse pilots, in Durham, North Carolina (with Reach NC Voices) and San Jose, California (with KQED), offered Amazon gift cards. The vast majority of people responded to most questions, and stayed engaged throughout the diary period. Many reported that they enjoyed the chance to reflect on their information habits and needs, and appreciated the fact that the news organization cared enough to ask.

And in Durham, the Reach team invited participants to a dinner and community conversation to culminate Pulse, where the prevailing sentiment was gratefulness for the chance to connect with others in the community.

Durham residents gather to discuss information needs with the Reach NC Voices team and community journalism specialist Fiona Morgan. Photo by Andrew Haeg.

The resulting data sets presented a rich view of people’s day-to-day information intake. Given the right analysis, and a newsroom receptive to shaping decisions based on the data and feedback, we see a great deal of potential for some version of Pulse to be used as a simple way to gauge information needs before newsrooms sink time and treasure into developing new news products or beats, and in refreshing and realigning their understanding of what they cover day-to-day, and how.

But here’s the thing about Pulse: It requires that the newsroom’s decisions be guided by what comes back. And this, here, is the proverbial Russian winter of listening efforts: Asking for feedback and input from the community requires us to commit to being open to their feedback and input. And, if we’re honest with ourselves, that’s just not how most newsrooms work.

“I don’t think there are many media organizations that are totally open” to listening to the public, Outlier’s Sarah Alvarez told me as we chatted about Pulse the other day. “They still trust their judgment more than they trust data about information needs,” she says. And there’s a strong bias in newsrooms to frame what they deliver based on what’s on offer (i.e. their inventory of beats and stories they tend to write), instead of based on an understanding of what information would have most utility in a community.

To be sure, journalists need to trust their gut and judgment, but that’s not enough — especially when both are informed by where we live and who we talk to on a daily basis.

And obviously, no newsroom would survive without monitoring their traffic and numbers to make sure that they’re sparking interest and growing audiences — but just because someone is listening, or watching, or reading doesn’t mean that their curiosity is being satisfied, or their underlying information needs being served. And so, even though we may find residents speaking in a nuanced way about the need for more information about housing costs, for instance, an editor might say “we cover housing all of the time,” or “we already covered that.”

But “it doesn’t mean that people are done with that issue,” Sarah says. In most cases, she says, “you have no idea” whether people are satisfied by the news you’ve shared or if they need more to make sense of things. Meanwhile, we seem to be perfectly OK climbing on board a story that goes viral, because hey, instant audience, but as Sarah says “what goes viral is not an indication of value and it’s not even an indication of need.” I mean, I was as riveted by the #MPRraccoon as anyone, and not least because my old office at MPR would given my a front-row seat to its world-captivating climb, but also because stories like these can bring us together for a much-needed moment of respite and relief from the news onslaught.

Still, in this context, asking people about their information needs can seem overly labor-intensive. Pulse is meant to reduce the labor. But we can only lower the bar so much until we deal with the biggest barrier: The lack of openness — curiosity even — about our community’s genuine news and information needs.

Pulse is in its early stages and, and as Alvarez agrees, “does need a lot of refining in terms of the questions you ask” and how the data is processed and synthesized. But when done well, “it can make journalists feel so much more confident in their reporting” and by extension, give newsrooms a great deal more assuredness in where they invest their editorial resources so they can cover their community more effectively, and be of greater service. KPCC in Southern California, a public radio newsroom with a deep commitment to serving its communities, has just signed on to pick up and run with the Pulse framework in a few months. We’re building momentum with newsrooms that see where journalism is going, where it needs to be. As Sarah says, in order to ensure the relevance of our work — especially at the local level — “sooner or later newsrooms are going to have to figure out how to do this.”