Learning how to listen: insights from the News Impact Academy on community engagement

We spent two days looking at ways to involve audiences in our reporting, to make our newsrooms more diverse, and to connect our communities to each other

Image by Paula Montañà Tor

“I will more easily be able to engage with any community of my choosing because I discovered there are many communities, not just one.”

“I feel empowered to put into practice, with the help of the crowd, ideas that were put in a drawer because we don’t have the resources to realise them.”

“I learned about the parallels between engaged journalism and data journalism, so I am going to go back and ask the data unit in my organisation if they realise that they are actually doing this kind of work.”

These are just some of the takeaways we heard from participants at the end of the second 2018 edition of the News Impact Academy, which took place in Paris on 27 and 28 June and focused on community engagement.

Supported by the Google News Initiative, the Academy is a training programme that brings together media professionals from all over Europe and helps them explore practical solutions to some of the challenges they are facing in their news organisations.

At the Academy in Paris last week, 20 participants from 10 countries joined us to learn more about how we can listen to and work with our communities to produce journalism as a service, and not a finished product. They were guided by Marie Gilot, founder and director of J+ at the Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY.

During the two days, we used human-centred design methodologies inspired by the Stanford d. school and the Luma Institute, to identify ways to make listening to our audiences a core part of the research, reporting and distribution process.

Working with and not just for our communities is crucial for both journalism and society. By doing so, we provide the information people need to develop as individuals and make key decisions. We increase plurality and diversity, help tackle the ‘wicked problem’ of low trust in the media, and ultimately, we develop more resilient revenue models for journalism.

Image by Mattia Peretti

We also looked at how we can make our newsrooms more diverse in order to better reflect our audiences, explored crowdsourcing examples and techniques, and brainstormed approaches for connecting not just journalists to audiences, but also connecting groups of people to each other.

Here are four things we learned:

Take off your journalist hat and listen without a story in mind

On the first day of the Academy, the cohort participated in an exercise that required them to listen like ethnographers, and not like journalists. The aim was to practise being more open-minded when speaking to members of our communities.

When we listen to people with our journalist hats on, we usually have a story in mind. We phrase questions in a way that will provide the information we’re looking for, or lead us to a powerful quote or soundbite.

But to really engage with our audiences in a conversation, and build a trustworthy relationship, we should listen with an open mind. And we can do this by:

  • avoiding ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions;
  • asking ‘why’ a lot;
  • being empathetic;
  • and remembering that our role is to find out what people need, not to make them come up with a solution themselves.

Understand the needs of the different communities you are serving

A news organisation, whether hyperlocal or an international publication, doesn’t address just one community. They can have different communities formed around topics of interest, a specific location, or a cause people care about.

On the second day of the Academy, participants built on the listening exercise to identify the groups of people they would like to serve, and the methods for reaching out to them.

While everyone in the room had a clear idea of who their audiences are, there were two main challenges participants seemed to face: having active and engaged communities but not having enough resources to manage them; having resources but not knowing how to best allocate them to answer people’s needs and to bring those groups together in the most suitable way.

Image by Paula Montañà Tor

People’s information needs and the ways in which we can address them can vary significantly depending on which communities they belong to. It’s important not to limit them to only one way of participating in our journalism. We should cater to their strengths, whether that’s expertise in a subject, a technical skill they have, or an ability to spread the word about a project we’re working on.

Find your currency, don’t do engagement for the sake of engagement

There are different ways to work with audiences before, during and after publishing a story.

Whether we’re telling people that we’re listening by posting a flyer, or inviting their contributions through a webform or a social media call-out, we learned that we should apply the same rules:

  • be transparent about who you are and what you want;
  • be helpful and provide information, don’t start by asking questions right away;
  • avoid being extractive and transactional;
  • ask for permission if you are in a closed community such as a closed Facebook group;
  • be authentic but gentle.

During the Academy, participants talked to Terry Parris Jr., deputy editor, engagement, at ProPublica, a pioneer of engaged journalism that has worked on several public-powered investigative journalism projects, including ‘Lost mothers’ and ‘Reliving Agent Orange’.

“When people help you tell a story, you have the ability to inform and impact them, and build trust in a different way,” Parris Jr. said. “This is not just for the sake of engagement and connecting people, all of these things lead to better and more journalism, because you understand people better.”

Start small, learn from your experiments, and share the knowledge

We start each Academy by asking participants to share the biggest challenge they are facing. This is one of the most valued exercises, because it gives us specific goals to work towards during the two days, and helps identify what we have in common.

Another aim of the programme is to highlight ways in which we can inspire and support each other. Through a round of lightning talks, people in the room had the chance to share what kind of experiments they’ve done in their newsrooms, what aspects of journalism they are passionate about, and what they would like to know more of.

The participants of the Academy in Paris came to journalism from different backgrounds and through various avenues, and they belonged to organisations including public broadcasters, hyperlocal digital-only outlets, and national publications.

However, we saw that even though they came from newsrooms that were based in different countries and that had different structures and business models, they identified common challenges and opportunities.

Image by Barbara Kužnik

We returned to the initial list of challenges at the end of our two days together to see if we’d made any progress, and we did.

Participants said they felt inspired to experiment with the community engagement approaches we had discussed during the programme. We realised “the crowd is a resource that needs to be organised”, and that starting a crowdsourcing project with the audience doesn’t require a team of 10 people.

“During these two days, I wrote down many times the words ‘start small’. Most times you have a broad idea and you don’t go for it because of resources, but if you start small, even if it fails, you can ask for advice,” said one of the participants of the Academy.

It was inspiring to see people were also keen to keep the conversation they had started in the room going, and keep sharing learnings with each other. Many news organisations in Europe are finding innovative approaches to community engagement, or using traditional tools and methods in new ways, and there is much they can learn from one another, both in terms of what works and what doesn’t.

As one participant put it: “This is a wonderful forum for people who will probably, at some point, run into walls and they will have to have each other’s backs.”


Want to take part in our next News Impact Academy?

On 25–26 September, we will explore the topic of newsroom leadership at the News Impact Academy in Barcelona.

The topics of the last two editions (London and Warsaw) will be announced in the next Training newsletter and applications will open right after.

The Academy can be joined free of charge, and we also cover travel and accommodation costs for all participants. Applications for the Academy in Barcelona are open until 20 July and can be submitted via https://newsimpact.io/registration/academy.