Photo Credit: Don Usner, Searchlight New Mexico

Ears to the Ground

From Seattle to Scotland, Tracking a Changing Journalism Landscape One Conversation at a Time

Sara Catania
May 3, 2018 · 11 min read

“I don’t do social media. It’s such a mess.”

“Isn’t it true that the government controls the news media?”

“Can you tell me how GroundSource works? I never took the time to really understand.”

Since I started with GroundSource as chief storyteller in April I’ve had some interesting conversations about the state of journalism, of social media and everything in between. Yes, as per my job description, many of these conversations are with beneficiaries of the Community Listening and Engagement Fund (also known as CLEF grantees), and I’ll get to them in a minute.

But also with people. You know, non-journalists. The people GroundSource promises to help news organizations better listen to. The non-journalist people who are interested in the world but who don’t obsess over the White House Correspondents’ Dinner and tend to focus their energy on concerns closer to home: a new job, a school fundraiser, a refurbished playground at the neighborhood park. (This is where I’d typically refer to “community,” but that word’s been so twisted of late that I’m taking a little pause from using it to ponder its current meaning.)

One such person I spoke with was traveling with her mom to a family reunion and struck up a “what do you do?” conversation as we waited in the Southwest Airlines boarding line. When I described GroundSource as a way to build and manage direct relationships between people and newsrooms, she seemed intrigued. But when I mentioned that it works via your cell phone, through voice and text messaging, and not through Facebook, she got downright excited.

“Wow!” she said. “That’s wonderful!” and then added her aforementioned abstinence from the “mess” of social media. Which led me to wonder how many people there are out there who are choosing to opt out of social media but remain hungry for connection to news that matters to them, and to the people delivering it.

Another non-journalist with a compelling perspective was a Lyft driver named Gustavo, who, upon learning my profession, said, “Can you tell me something, honestly?” Then he drove in silence for a mile or two (working up his courage? letting the pause sink in, for dramatic effect? both?) before posing his ‘does the government control the media?’ question.

I had to take a minute because I didn’t expect a question like that (and because I needed to adjust my own wrong-headed, Homeland-fueled caricature of all media conspiracists as “rednecks”). My response went something like: “Well I certainly understand why you might think that, and in some cases it might be true, but in general it’s really not true at all, and that’s one of the things journalists are trying very hard right now to demonstrate.”

We spent a good 40 minutes in deep conversation before we got to my destination — the airport — where I realized I’d left my cell phone in the car just in time to watch Gustavo’s burgundy sedan speed off.

That he subsequently turned around (minutes from home) and crawled back through rush hour traffic, miraculously returning my phone before my plane took off was certainly fortunate for me. But I also took it as a good sign for journalism — that a person who honestly worried that I, a member of the press, was operating in the sway of a state-sponsored cabal was nonetheless willing to be persuaded otherwise (or at least overlook it enough to do me the kindness of returning my phone).

And then there was this thought-provoking exchange, this time with a journalist, or more accurately an entrepreneur in the business of trying to find a way forward for journalists. “Yes, GroundSource,” he said, nodding. “So interesting.” Pause. And then the head scratch/question/confession, re: How does this “GroundSource” work, anyway?

And there’s the rub, or a rub, anyway. Founder Andrew Haeg is the first to acknowledge that GroundSource has not yet found a straightforward way to convey what it does, how it stands to benefit both newsrooms and the people they serve and what it looks like when it’s working. My work, funded through CLEF, seeks to address those questions.

Ideally, GroundSource lowers the bar to sparking a conversation, making it easier to broaden and deepen feedback, providing a democratized (all you need is a cell phone!) approach to cultivating connection. What does it take to get there? The nearly two-dozen newsrooms that received GroundSource grant subsidies through CLEF are starting to figure that out.

As of right now, eight have undergone initial training and are mapping out their plans. Over the past week, I spoke briefly with most of them to get a sense of what they hope to accomplish with GroundSource, how they’ll track whether it’s working, and what wild success would look like.

These news outlets operate across a wide geographic swath, from Seattle to Scotland, and across an array of structural models, from a one-person, digital-only operation looking to reach a Spanish-speaking audience to an established public television station trying to connect with a younger population. They share a desire to listen, and to build connections with the people they serve.

Alexandra Smith is growth editor at, a local news startup with operations in four cities, including Miami, Orlando, Portland and Seattle, and plans to nearly triple that number by the end of the year. The New Tropic, their Miami-based flagship publication, is aiming to launch GroundSource in the second phase of a project focused on hurdles to home-buying. To familiarize their audience with the platform and build trust, they’re planning to start by texting out their early findings. “We’ll already have some good existing content that we can share with people as a first step,” Smith said. “I love and understand the value of giving before asking. It also helps people understand what we’re doing and how it works.”

In Oakland, California, Madeleine Bair, the founding director of El Tímpano, a nascent local Spanish-language news outlet, said GroundSource’s phone-based communication platform is ideal for a population that often relies heavily, if not exclusively, on cell phones for information.

Bair, an Oakland native, is hoping GroundSource will help accelerate and streamline the launch of El Tímpano, Spanish for eardrum. “According to Census data, one in five Oakland residents speaks Spanish,” she said. “But there’s no central channel of information for the local Latino community.” For example, Bair said, announcements for citywide town hall-style gatherings are often not translated into Spanish. As she was conducting research prior to launching El Tímpano, she said she attended local city-sponsored forums where there was no Spanish language interpreter. The city failed to get the information to Spanish-speaking residents, she said, so none showed up. “I would like to see GroundSource as a reliable source of information for this community, which currently doesn’t exist,” Bair said.

Bair is hoping El Tímpano will also reach a second group of underserved residents in Oakland—a large and growing population of immigrants from Central American countries who speak the Mayan language Mam, ranked as one of the top ten languages spoken in U.S. immigration courts. “In the Mam community there are high rates of illiteracy, so we may be using an entirely different approach,” Bair said. “This is where GroundSource voice messaging could be very effective.”

At Chalkbeat, a national nonprofit with education-focused reporting in seven cities, GroundSource initially will focus on two questions, according to engagement editor Nic Garcia. The first—What do parents and families need to know to make better education-related choices?—will be delivered across all bureaus in the form of an information needs assessment. “We believe if we can provide more and better information, parents can better advocate for themselves and their children, and there will be better schools,” Garcia said.

“We’ve yet to crack into a core audience that we need to better understand: parents, especially those in the low-income communities we serve.” — Nic Garcia, Chalkbeat

The second question is centered on enrollment instability in Detroit, where a recent study found that 48 percent of elementary students had attended more than one school, compared with 21 percent statewide. “When families change schools what is the impact, what information can we gather?” Garcia said. “I don’t think we can say yet whether this has been positive or negative. I think it’s going to be more nuanced than that. We’re hoping GroundSource can help us get at those subtleties.”

Underlying both of these efforts is a larger Chalkbeat objective: “We’ve yet to crack into a core audience that we need to better understand: parents, especially those in the low-income communities we serve,” Garcia said.

At Searchlight New Mexico, a statewide non-profit focused on investigative and data journalism, reporter and engagement manager Ed Williams sees GroundSource as a crucial tool in his ongoing reporting on “Raising New Mexico”, a yearlong series on the challenges faced by children, currently focusing on foster youth.

Searchlight NM began by forming a group of a half dozen former foster youth, now in their late teens and early 20s. “In one of our first meetings I asked what do you think is the biggest problem with foster care?” Williams said. “They said, oh that’s easy, it’s the way we’re prescribed drugs whenever we’re in state custody.” Searchlight NM found that social service and medical professionals have been raising the issue for a while, Williams said, “but nobody has been reporting on it.”

The experience of being in foster care “is incredibly isolating,” Williams said. “That’s ironic, because the number of kids in foster care is at an all time high right now. How can we remove that isolation and give the kids a way to find and talk to each other and have a safe communal space online? GroundSource is a great way to create initial conversations and identify these young people.”

“Texting is a great entrypoint.”

— Ed Williams, Searchlight New Mexico

Ideally, Williams would like to use GroundSource to help identify all of the kids in New Mexico who are in vulnerable situations and figure out a way to connect with them, and to connect them with one another. “Texting is a great entrypoint,” Williams said, “and that’s what we’re hoping to do with GroundSource.”

In Kansas City, the local public television station is keen to deploy GroundSource at live events, both as a means to connect with its audience, and also to gauge how well it’s reaching traditionally underserved parts of its service area. “We’ll be using GroundSource to engage folks and there will be a lot that we can do with that,” said Lindsey Foat, KCPT’s community engagement producer. “You can actually use the momentum from a live event to build a relationship with a community member.”

Foat said she’s specifically hoping to gather zip codes from as many attendees as possible, to gauge how well “the audience at events reflects the communities” they’re covering. One such opportunity is an upcoming event on housing evictions. “The people who come out to this event about eviction — are they really living in areas that are seeing evictions?” she said. “That will be extremely valuable to us in understanding what we’re doing — and how we’re doing — in reaching the full range of our audience.”

Another Midwest CLEF recipient is Illinois Newsroom, a regional journalism collaboration anchored at Illinois Public Media radio station in the central part of the state, focused on education, political impact and health and environment. For Kristin Walters, visiting senior engagement strategist, GroundSource offers a clear path to a younger audience.

“As of right now, young people get less out of the public media conversation because they’re not a traditional public media audience, and we are still very much a legacy model,” Walters said. “If we can integrate GroundSource into our newsroom we’ll be in a good position to further our mission of serving the whole community.”

“If we can integrate GroundSource into our newsroom we’ll be in a good position to further our mission of serving the whole community.” — Kristin Walters, Illinois Newsroom

“People are comfortable in different technologies, and with GroundSource we’re meeting them where they are, instead of trying to make them come to us,” Walter said. “That’s the first step in showing the community we care, by using the tool they’re using.”

GroundSource also provides a way to connect with people who live in the rural parts of the state without good Internet coverage. “We want to be seen as a media organization committed to empowering our communities,” Walters said. “We want them to feel like there are a number of routes of communication to share their needs.”

The last GroundSource newcomer I’ll share in this piece is The Ferret, an investigative news outlet based in Scotland with an ambitious dual agenda: to improve the quality of journalism in the country, and to train and equip non-journalists to tell their own stories, and also to gain access to and tell the stories of others who have traditionally been under-served.

According to The Ferret website, “with everyone’s help and experience, and independent financial backing, we can cover important issues the mainstream media often misses. Whatever happens, The Ferret will be nosing up the trousers of power.”

The Ferret has already trained and published writers from a range of marginalized populations, including a person who had previously experienced homelessness, someone in narcotics recovery and a Gypsy-Traveller, according to Rachel Hamada, head of engagement and innovation.

“We want to support a wide range of people, getting them skilled up to take on a lot of different stories,” Hamada said. “We would also like to use GroundSource to gather ideas from communities we might not have thought about previously.”

Hamada also envisions using GroundSource to reach residents living in the far-flung, remote stretches of the country, including more than 90 populated islands. “It’s particularly hard to get out to some of the island communities,” she said. “These are very different places with different stories. It’s important to hear those, and we see GroundSource as a powerful way to expand our reach there.”

“It’s a matter of listening more,” she said, “and better.”

There are many more GroundSource CLEF recipients, and as many more ways in which news outlets hope to leverage the tool to improve their journalism. I’ll be digging into most if not all of these in the weeks and months ahead. If you have questions about GroundSource, or the projects underway, feel free to comment here. Or shoot me an email at We’re all ears.

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