Engaging for trust: What news organizations can (and should) do right now

Impact Architects recently wrapped up a five month long research project, supported by the News Integrity Initiative at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York, in which we analyzed engagement practices at four organizations — Outlier Media, a small non-profit; ProPublica, a large non-profit with a national presence; Free Press: News Voices, an information advocacy organization; and McClatchy, a national for-profit publisher. We asked about the relationship of engaged journalism with trust, revenue, and civic engagement. It was illuminating to see how very different organizations approached engaged journalism, and the full research report details the ways in which the organizations converge and diverge, along with recommendations for news organizations and media funders.

But without diving into the (thorough!) report, it’s useful to ask what newsrooms can do to apply the research — right now.

Here are some actions organizations can take based on our findings. And while you can start to take action as soon as you’re done reading this blog, don’t expect the payoff to come as instant gratification. The impact associated with engaged journalism takes time. And don’t forget, you’ll need a measurement plan to see the changes.

1. Transparency is likely to lead to increased trust. Work to increase your organization’s transparency about journalistic practices and processes.

While additional research is needed to move from “likely” to “definitely,” organizations like McClatchy have good evidence that increasing their transparency is contributing to increased audience trust. Transparency can show up in journalistic practices and processes in a lot of ways, but at its core, it removes the shroud of mystery surrounding journalism. This can be something as simple as introducing reporters to audiences through an email newsletter, like some McClatchy publications in California do, including the Sacramento Bee. And deeper insight into a reporter’s motivations and ties to the community can help create a more intimate link between reporter and audience.

Strategy 1: “Get to know us.”

To replicate McClatchy’s strategy, identify a distribution platform for the targeted audience, then craft an introduction with transparency in mind. Who’s the audience for the “get to know” strategy? What do they already know about you and your organization? What questions might they have? And how would this act of transparency contribute to a lasting relationships?

Strategy 2: “Be one of us.”

ProPublica increases its transparency through crowdsourcing information from the audience. In this way, audience members are privy to the kind of information the organization needs in its reporting and can follow along as the reporter(s) continue to dig in and report out. And ProPublica frequently reports regarding how the audience’s information propelled investigations forward, demonstrating that the reporters are actually doing something with the information, and that the information is integral to the journalistic process. Find ways to invite your audience to be part of the reporting process, and bring them along with you as you continue to report the story.

Trusting News offers many additional resources about why, and how, media organizations can advance trust through transparency. In short, they ask: What are the ways you can tell your story to the public so they can get to know you? The answers will contribute to what a recent Knight Foundation report calls “radical transparency.”

2. A shared mission with the audience is a quick path to gaining trust. Ensure that your organization has a clear mission, and communicate it both in theory and in practice with your audience.

Outlier Media is an example of an organization with a very specific mission that is clearly communicated to its consumers, both in theory and in practice: To “identify, report, and deliver valuable information to empower [Detroit] residents to hold landlords, municipal government, and elected officials accountable for long standing problems in the housing and utilities markets.”

Outlier puts its mission into practice through its distribution method, SMS (GroundSource, specifically). Since Outlier first launched, hundreds of residents have chosen to respond to the text messages offering up free, specific, and actionable information, thereby entering into a relationship with Outlier Media. Residents engage even though they may not have much trust in the media, not to mention that they probably had never even heard of Outlier Media before the SMS introduction. Through the SMS back-and-forth, Detroit residents are offered the opportunity to ask questions directly of a reporter, and the Outlier Team responds to every question.

Outlier Media offers a blueprint for what mission alignment can look like at the organizational or project level. Whether large or small, it comes down to making the information needs of the intended audience the purpose of doing journalism. Larger newsrooms that want to build trust through engagement might think of project goals as mini mission statements. What engagement projects are you developing or working on right now? What does the intended audience need, and how can that be built in to the purpose of the work so that everyone working towards the same goal? Or, as Joy Mayer has put it, forget about “what” it is journalists do and think more deeply about the “why” of the work.

3. Use community organizing principles to conduct community outreach.

Your newsroom should spend time thinking about where it wants to build relationships and how to get there by using community organizing tactics. This means community mapping to figure out who you want to be in a relationship with, reaching out for face-to-face meetings, and listening deeply to their concerns and needs so that they become a part of the decision making process for future conversations. Free Press uses these tactics in its News Voices initiative to bring together community members and journalists in regular community events.

For instance, the Charlotte Observer (also a McClatchy publication) has partnered with Free Press for a North Carolina News Voices project. News Voices mediates the relationship between underserved Charlotte communities and the Observer, and after about eight months, the Observer has largely taken over hosting the monthly conversations with communities.

Organizing outreach isn’t something a newsroom can do at a moment’s notice, even with the help of an organization like Free Press. But by starting to think like a community organizer and setting an agenda for community outreach, newsrooms can eventually build genuine trust with their constituencies.

News Voices itself has a useful good guide for any newsroom to get started with using organizing principles to reach out to communities and build trust.

Ready: Go!

There are many actions newsrooms can take right now to engage for trust. However, actually seeing the trust as a payoff won’t be immediate. In the meantime, organizations have an opportunity to develop measurement strategies to understand how their engaged journalism practices are engendering trust. Engagement requires resources, and organizations must begin to see measuring the impact of their work as a necessary part of the work to ensure that these resources are being appropriately and adequately allocating resources. For instance, McClatchy newsrooms track mission fulfillment by answering yes or no mission based questions. A story moves forward if the editorial team identifies where it fits in the organization’s mission, and it’s counted successful if it followed through. Here are McClatchy’s questions:

  1. Will the story break news that holds leaders or institutions accountable?
  2. Will the story break news that makes a concrete difference in the community?
  3. Will the story tell readers how something will directly affect their lives or the lives of their families or friends?
  4. Will the story use extraordinary, revelatory storytelling to help readers understand a consequential societal issue in new ways?
  5. Will the story attract an extraordinary amount of readership or engagement because it is of great interest or value to our readers for other reasons?

What would the questions be for your organization?

Outlier Media and Free Press’s News Voices find impact in relationships — asking themselves how many relationships are being creating and are they having the desired effect? Surveys, participation rates, and subscriber conversions are just three more useful methods for capturing the effects of transparency and community organizing. And we’ve written before about one possible path to measuring organizational mission.

Newsrooms can, and should, design engagement for trust right now: Work toward transparency, align organizational and project missions with the communities being served, and plan outreach. Do one or more of those things while building in measurements for trust, and the entire industry can soon grasp the essential value of engaged journalism.