Listening and co-creation: 5 insights that will strengthen your engaged journalism

Resources and recommendations from Engagement Explained Live, Europe’s first conference on community-driven journalism

Stella Volkenand
Jun 27 · 8 min read

In the past year, our Engaged Journalism Accelerator programme has supported news organisations across Europe to kickstart and evolve promising models of engaged journalism — journalism that puts community engagement at its core, empowering communities and their conversations.

Last week in Berlin, we gathered 140 practitioners from more than 20 countries for Engagement Explained Live, a one-day event aimed at hearing about their experiences with community-driven journalism, building connections, celebrating their successes and learning from their mistakes.

Here is what we learned:

1. Plan your resources — engaged journalism is not a small feat

Don’t underestimate the effort it takes to make engaged journalism an integral part of your work. Facilitating conversations with your community is about planning, logistics and ongoing dialogue as much as it is about the editorial work.

Oliver Fuchs, deputy editor-in-chief for Swiss organisation Republik, shared this: “We underestimated how many resources are needed. We thought we could sit down once a week and chat a bit. But it is a lot of back and forth, a lot of explaining and much asking. Don’t underestimate how much time it takes.”

Catalina Albeanu, digital editor at DoR (Decât o Revistă), and her colleagues travelled across Romania to host pop-up newsrooms, collaborative events for journalists and readers to come up with story ideas together. During the process, they found that they needed more support than they had anticipated — mostly for non-editorial tasks such as driving or photographing.

Examples and resources:

2. You will need to work hard to earn (and keep) people’s trust

If you are reaching out to a community to involve them in your reporting, it’s very possible you will be met with scepticism, regardless of how good your intentions are. Like in any relationship, you need to listen to people’s concerns, get to know them and allow them to find out more about your work, before expecting them to trust you.

In his workshop on deep listening, Cole Goins, engagement lead for Journalism+Design at The New School, explained that not all communities want to be listened to by journalists. That does not mean that you cannot cooperate with them — but you need to earn their trust first. Local partnerships are essential, as well as having people in your staff that are representative of the communities you are looking to work with.

“At the moment, many newsrooms aren’t going the extra mile to reach people who are totally disengaged and to understand their stories,” said Paul Myles, head of editorial, On Our Radar. To increase trust and to avoid “parachuting” into communities, On Our Radar is working with local reporter networks based in the areas they are covering, and people in those networks don’t necessarily have a journalism background. On Our Radar is aiming to train people who are often unable to share stories on their own terms. To do so, they have developed a framework that enhances the community’s connectivity, capacity, confidence and conviction.

When you report with — and for — a community, you need to remember that you are accountable to them, said City Bureau’s co-founder Andrea Hart. Journalism needs to be treated like a human relationship, where trust builds from a demonstration of accountability and transparency. Ask yourself whether you are willing to give as much as you are asking from your community, and whether your goal is to cultivate a relationship or whether you are asking for one-way transactions.

Examples and resources:

3. Find a common language and way of working with your community

Inclusive, engaged journalism often requires tapping into communities that may not be as media literate, or who do not have a solid understanding of journalistic mechanisms.

“There is a huge wealth of people that are passionate about socially responsible journalism, but who don’t have the language to talk about this,” said Anna Merryfield, community media director at Social Spider, and UK representative of the Accelerator Ambassador Network.

“Not everyone shares a journalist’s love for the written word,” added Amanda Eleftheriades-Sherry, co-founder of Clydesider. To lower the barrier for community members to participate in the editorial process, Clydesider is organising creative workshops where participants contribute through arts and crafts, music, discussions and exercises.

Ties Gijzel, co-founder, Are We Europe, presented a way to set up a collaboration process in a short amount of time, enabling everyone to have a say and contribute expertise to the process and the outcome of the story. Are We Europe uses an adapted version of the Google Design Sprint to create multimedia stories and reporting with local experts, in only five days. Using this process, they recently produced The Drums of Democracy in Moldova (shortlisted for the 2019 European Press Prize) and a reportage on polarisation in Greece.

Examples and resources:

4. Make good use of your comments section

While they are not new, comments sections have proven to be a useful — yet often underutilised — tool for engaging in discussion with users.

At De Correspondent, the comments section is a central point of the reporters’ work. “We don’t call it a comments section, and we want to make sure that you contribute to our stories,” explained Gwen Martel, conversation editor at De Correspondent. The section is only visible to paying members, and contributions are accompanied by a person’s full name and verified expertise title. Instead of just hoping constructive conversations would take place, Martel actively reaches out to members to bring them into the discussion in the areas they have expertise in.

People want to help. Many people like to talk about their work, people want to contribute to good journalism.

— Gwen Martel

Oliver Fuchs from Republik agreed: ‘‘[Asking members] ‘what do you think?’ does not cut it. You need to ask good, constructive questions.”

German organisation Krautreporter has created a whole strategy around its comments section, said editor-in-chief Rico Grimm. Every reporter has to be active in the comments section and respond to a comment within 30–60 minutes to show users that they are present. “When you publish you have to think about how to continue the conversation. You need to know what you ask for.”

Instead of asking for opinions, Grimm advises asking people for knowledge, experiences or reasonings. For example, for a recent story, Krautreporter asked its members why they eat meat even though they know animals are suffering. Almost 200 people answered and their replies were very nuanced. The resulting story was one of the most discussed articles on the platform, attracting a number of new members.

Examples and resources:

5. Understand your community’s expertise and use it smartly

To successfully co-create with your community you have to understand what they know and where their contributions can add value.

But how can you find out what knowledge your users have? Spanish fact-checking platform Maldita.es created a simple and appealing survey that asked members to share their “superpowers” with them. Membership coordinator Beatriz Lara explained the idea behind it: “We have many malditos [members] speaking different languages — scientists, computer experts, doctors, and they collaborate with us. We journalists cannot know everything, and by doing it together, our work is way more professional.”

The result of simply asking was striking: Maldita.es received answers from 2,500 existing members and 500 new users who became members of the Maldita.es community.

Krautreporter has implemented qualitative reader surveys into its subscription model. When their users register, they are asked five questions about their education, their field of expertise and their contacts. Answers feed into a database that reporters can use to find sources and support for stories.

Examples and resources:


Please let us know

What tips or experiences are we missing? Did your news organisation try out a new way of engaging with your community? We’re setting up a directory of experiments and would love to hear from you!


Are you interested in learning more about engaged journalism? Take a look at our website with resources, databases and case studies. You can also subscribe to our bi-weekly Engagement Explained newsletter covering the latest initiatives from across Europe.


European Journalism Centre

Interviews, insights and opportunities from the European Journalism Centre.

Thanks to Madalina Ciobanu.

Stella Volkenand

Written by

Community Co-Ordinator at @ejcnet & @journagrants | Get in touch: volkenand[@]ejc[.]net

European Journalism Centre

Interviews, insights and opportunities from the European Journalism Centre.