Lessons in listening

A few tips for serving a community of local publishers and media partners

[This post is an adaptation of another post in the NJ Mobile News Lab publication, which summarizes my community engagement efforts over the last year as part of my practicum project for the social journalism MA program at the CUNY J-School. I split them up because I felt like these lessons-learned warranted their own post.]

I spent the last year with a network of roughly 150 or more digital news publishers and media partners. During that time, I asked questions, listened to their answers, and tried to find solutions. I wasn’t always the best listener, and I wasn’t always able to find solutions, but I learned a lot about how to approach people and deal with a community that is in the throes of major, industry-wide disruption and uncertainty.

To anyone who is interested in serving a similar community in the future, I offer the following insights and recommendations, which are based on my interactions with our New Jersey media partners:

1 . Be aware and considerate of the various pressures they are operating under.

As discussed in the first few sections of this post, the media and publishing industry is locked in a deep economic depression, the effects of which are compounded at the local level. Many local publishers were once staff journalists themselves, before they abruptly lost their jobs in the middle of their careers. Not everyone fits this description, obviously, but the overwhelming number of people I work with have been affected in one way or another by the massive disruption occurring in virtually every corner of this industry.

That’s why it’s important to be aware and considerate of the immense pressures that many in this community are laboring under every day. For many, every minute spent innovating and experimenting is a minute they could have spent trying to put food on the table. That’s not to say that innovation doesn’t contribute to sustainability, but there is no guarantee that it will. This means you are likely to encounter hesitation from some publishers and outright dismissal from others when asking them to sacrifice traditional practices and the associated short-term gains for a long-term bet with no guarantee of a payoff in the end.

2. Remember how many different hats most local publishers have to wear.

In addition to the industry-level pressures operating on the world of local journalism, many smaller publishers have to fill multiple roles in their operational hierarchy. That means the publishers you work with are, in many cases, simultaneously acting as journalists, editors, designers, salespeople, community liaisons, digital strategists, social media managers, and a laundry list of other roles within their organizations. Be conscious of this and look for ways to take advantage of operational overlap.

3. Reach out to catch up and listen, not just when you need something.

No one likes to feel like they are only important or relevant when someone wants something from them. Make a point to reach out to members of the community with the sole intention of checking up on them to see how they are doing, what they are working on, and what’s been on their mind of late. The difference in response and enthusiasm I noticed between partners who received these friendly, obligation-free phone calls and those who I only called on a transactional basis was profound.

Not only were the former more open and willing to help me when I finally did ask them for something, but some of them even made a point to reach out to me on their own when they heard about a project or resource that they thought I might find useful. This is one of the most important and effective methods for maintaining community relationships I have come across during the course of this project.

4. Frequent contact is key, but don’t overdo it.

The above paragraph notwithstanding, there is a threshold for constant community contact that, when crossed, can turn even the most earnest and well-intentioned outreach efforts into the human equivalent of email spam. People like to feel like other people care about them and have their best interests at heart, but no one likes to be pestered and no one likes people who hover. There is a delicate balance between being attentive and being annoying. Find the line, and try not to cross it.


If you’re interested in learning more about the NJ Mobile News Lab, the Center for Cooperative Media, or any of our other projects, visitwww.centerforcooperativemedia.org, or send me an email atinfo@njnewscommons.org.

The NJ Mobile News Lab and the Center for Cooperative Media receive support from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, the James S. and John L. Knight Foundation, the Democracy Fund, and Montclair State University.

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