Listen Like a Journalist: Learnings and Opportunities From the Frontiers of Community Engagement

For years, GroundSource has been helping newsrooms directly engage with and listen to their communities. Now it’s taking a big step forward.

As a journalist, you’re well aware that right now, it’s crucial to actively nurture a trusting relationship with your community.

The Washington Post’s media columnist Margaret Sullivan put it this way: “We need to focus more intently — and more engagingly — on subjects that matter most to ordinary people’s lives.” Sullivan came to this conclusion after spending six weeks in a small town in western New York state, conducting dozens of interviews with a wide assortment of people she encountered going about their daily lives at flea markets, diners, pizza joints and the public library.

That’s all to the good, you’re probably saying, but “intently” and “engagingly,” while admirable, require time and effort. It’s the rare exception when a journalist or news organization has the resources to commit six weeks to the task of answering a single question, as Sullivan did.

How, then, do the rest of us forge, much less sustain, these connections? There’s no simple answer, but one way newsrooms are making inroads is with GroundSource. It’s an ingenious mobile messaging and voice platform that can bypass social media behemoths and connect directly with communities, enabling journalists to build and scale direct, lasting two-way relationships. Put another way, it makes it easy to reach and have an automated, back-and-forth, one-on-one conversation with hundreds or thousands of people all at once. Those conversations can then be sorted and distilled, creating opportunities for deeper engagement.

“We need to start teaching journalism as a more humble profession, one which seeks not to be the smartest person in the room, but the best listener” — GroundSource Founder Andrew Haeg

GroundSource is the brainchild of Andrew Haeg, who I first met through the alumni network of the JSK Fellowship at Stanford and who developed it out of his deep desire to cultivate a culture of listening in news. “We need to start teaching journalism as a more humble profession, one which seeks not to be the smartest person in the room, but the best listener,” he observed in a keynote to the Entrepreneurial Journalism Educators Summit at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. “One that sees audiences as people, as teachers, as sources of inspiration and expertise.”

Today that doesn’t sound terribly radical, but when Andrew described GroundSource to me five years ago, the notion of giving the public a greater role in journalism wasn’t getting much attention, largely eclipsed by journalism’s (okay my) fascination with all the bright, shiny tech things — drones, AR, Google Glass.

Needless to say, a lot’s happened since the launch of GroundSource, in the world and in journalism. Tech toys are still plentiful and plenty distracting (and, yes, potentially super-useful). But there’s also this phone in nearly everyone’s pocket, if not their hand — 95% of Americans now own a cellphone of some kind, according to the Pew Research Center. And texting open rates (or, perhaps more precisely, read rates) dwarf those of email, ensuring an immediate, intimate conversation starter.

For resource-stretched newsrooms, what could be a more powerful, efficient means of yielding a pulse on their communities? GroundSource has worked with dozens of news outlets, testing and shaping the service based on their experiences and the needs of the people they serve.

At Outlier Media in Detroit, founder Sarah Alvarez utilizes a share first, then ask approach. After determining that housing is by far residents’ biggest concern, she started sending out mass texts, inviting residents to text back their address to tap into hard-to-find housing data. Was their home on the auction list? Had their landlord been ticketed for blight? Once that information is shared with respondents, they’re more likely to share other details that can lead to stories. “It’s such efficient beat development,” Alvarez told the Nieman Report. “I learned so much about housing so quickly. You can talk to hundreds of people in a week instead of just talking to a few.”

Cristina Kim, engagement and collaborations manager at Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting
“It’s getting us from spokespeople to everyday people.”
— Cristina Kim, Reveal

Reveal at the Center for Investigative Reporting has used GroundSource to offer exclusive content via text, enticing listeners to commit to the platform long-term. After a callout during its Keystone XL Pipeline coverage generated more than 300 voice messages on what listeners would tell President Trump, respondents were informed via text that they could receive exclusive reporting updates by texting the word, “Pipeline.” “It’s getting us from spokespeople to everyday people,” Cristina Kim, collaborations and engagement manager for Reveal, told GroundSource’s Simon Galperin

The Texas Tribune’s Amanda Zamora worked with GroundSource to develop Paige, a messaging app that links the audience to local government and enables them to ask questions, while pledging upfront to respect users’ aversion to spam. “Paige’s goal is to make Texas politics easier to follow, but she’s not just another mobile notification service (we know you have plenty of things chirping and buzzing on your phone every day),” Zamora promised in a post announcing the rollout last spring. “Paige will limit her updates to every Monday and Friday, with occasional alerts for live hearings or breaking news.”

At the national radio talk show 1A, a production of WAMU in Washington, D.C., senior producer Gabe Bullard sees the nature of the platform and the intimacy of the relationships cultivated using GroundSource as crucial to its effectiveness. “It sounds basic, but you trust someone you know more than a stranger who’s walking up and telling you something,” Bullard said in an interview with Haeg. “Hearing your own voice reflected in journalism, and having your own curiosity addressed, I think goes a really long way to building trust.’ ”

The editorial team at 1A, a national radio program produced by WAMU

Now GroundSource is embarking on the next phase of its evolution, working with a cohort of local, statewide, national and topic-based publishers over the next several months on projects tailored to their communities.

Funded in part by a grant from the Community Listening and Engagement Fund, or CLEF, 34 news organizations selected through a competitive application process will have a chance to use GroundSource and/or Hearken, a complementary service newsrooms use to listen to and engage the public as a story develops from conception to publication.

One CLEF recipient is WUWM in Milwaukee. The public radio station has already tested GroundSource at a couple of live events, one of which was a sold-out performance culminating Precious Lives, a two-year series on kids, guns and violence in the city. The majority of the show consisted of community members sharing their stories and experiences, and the organizers wanted to make sure to accommodate a robust conversation with the 600-person audience at the end. They decided to use GroundSource, sharing the phone number and inviting the audience to text their questions. As the questions flowed in, the GroundSource tool made it easy to quickly collect, sort and prepare them to be shared with minimal disruption to the performance onstage.

“It was a nice fit,” said WUWM managing editor Michelle Maternowski. “Texting the questions was a really low barrier to entry because nearly everyone had a phone, and with the size of the crowd it was easier to manage than index cards and less intimidating than getting up and standing at a mic.”

GroundSource also enabled them to collect questions continuously throughout the evening, and then include more of them when the time came to share.

“When people text they tend to get right to the point,” Maternowski said, instead of spending five minutes at the mic working up the courage to ask their question. For news organizations, that casual, friendly approach also offers an alternative to the institutional formality that can seep into a newsletter or email.

The event was a success for WUWM, but finding the funding to incorporate GroundSource on an ongoing basis was a challenge. “Now with the grant we can talk about that longer conversation, and how to keep people in the loop,” Maternowski said. She’s already using Hearken for a series called Bubbler Talk, and adding GroundSource will enable WUWM to expand the conversation to mobile. The grant provides the breathing space to get the service up and running, work out the kinks and determine its effectiveness and whether to keep it going after the grant runs out.

Precious Lives: The Live Show, at the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee, was co-produced by Milwaukee Public Radio-WUWM, which used GroundSource to collect questions, engage with and listen to the 600-member audience. Photo Credit: Milwaukee Magazine

As WUWM and the rest of the CLEF projects get underway, I’ll be engaged as the chief storyteller for GroundSource, documenting these projects — what works, what doesn’t — and delivering those learnings to you.

Some of the questions I’ll be looking to tackle include rates of response and ongoing engagement, inclusiveness, and exposure to stories and sources that would otherwise have gone unnoticed or unreached. Will GroundSource provide a clear and attainable path to listening and deeper engagement? Will that path be sustainable over time? How will newsrooms work to get the word out, remove barriers and make GroundSource accessible? And, ultimately, will all of these efforts help instill that critical trusting relationship? Look for detailed accounts in the months ahead.