From Troll Whispering to Community Building: Practical Lessons in Engagement from ProPublica, WNYC and WFMU

Last month, as part of the Innovating Local News summit hosted by the NJ News Commons and the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University, I moderated a panel with Amanda Zamora of ProPublica, Jim Schachter of WNYC and Ken Freedman of WFMU, looking at how their organizations have sought to build community around the news.

The focus of the panel was on moving newsrooms beyond narrow definitions of both “community” and “engagement.” While social media is a core part of many outreach efforts, this panel focused on how we can move beyond Facebook and Twitter to engage people in deeper ways on and offline.

Here are some takeaways from the panel – with lots of links to tools and examples.

Why Invest in Community Engagement?

Community building is complex and resource intensive, so before newsrooms develop a project they should by clear about why they are engaging their community and what their goals are. The panelists described three overarching ways that community engagement can strengthen media and news organizations:

  • Build capacity: Your community can help you do things you can’t do yourself. Amanda Zamora pointed to projects like ProPublica’s Free the Files project which helped journalists scour more than 17,000 campaign finance PDFs for critical data. Jim Schachter talked about the WNYC Cicada Project which taught people to build soil temperature sensors and track the spread of the 17-year cicada across the North East. At WFMU the audience can annotate live-playlists adding their own images, facts and links to each song, building a vast knowledge base around the music they play.
  • Build value: By inviting people into your work, you also make your work more central to people’s lives. When people have invested in a story or project, it helps build “sweat equity” in the organization. WFMU actively asks their community to help them fundraise with embeddable fundraising widgets. WNYC is currently running a sleep project that is providing people a platform to track their sleep and advice on getting more rest. Finally, Zamora of ProPublica talked about the way people see their stories, values, contributions reflected in ProPublica’s reporting and how that helps build affinity.

In many cases, the goal of these engagement efforts was not to cultivate more donors or raise money, but in the end, building capacity, trust and value are all critical to developing sustainable newsrooms. No matter what your business model is, you need to cultivate a deep connection to your community if you are going to survive.

Tips, Tricks and Tools for Community Engagement

Getting started: Just because you build it doesn’t mean they will come. While there are a lot of concrete resources you can use to develop and support community engagement, people are the most important ingredient. When it comes to mobilizing people to get involved with your project here is what the panel recommended:

  • Ask Often: People need to be actively recruited, and you should try different modes and messages to invite people in. Consider that different people will respond to different prompts, online, over the air, on mobile, in person, etc. (Check out ProPublica’s get involved page)
  • Encouraging Recruiting: Research shows that people are more likely to respond when asked by a friend. Give early participants the tools and resources to recruit others to join the effort. Use social media to help spread the word, connect to new people and mine existing communities.
  • Make it Easy: Make it easy to join. Keep the design simple, but make it compelling and beautiful. Keep your early asks light and reasonable, but plan how you can increase engagement and ask for more, deeper actions over time. (See how ProPublica used a simple Google form for engagement, and check out WNYC’s DHS call tool)

Keeping People Engaged: We’ve all signed up for new apps or websites and then never gone back. How do we keep people involved over time, and when possible deepen their investment, moving them up a ladder of engagement?

  • Positive Feedback: Celebrating what the community and individuals have accomplished is critical. This can come in a range of ways. Simple shout outs and cheering people on via Facebook and Twitter can go a long way. However, a few of the newsrooms have also had success with badges (see WFMU’s badges on user accounts here), leaderboards (see ProPublica’s Free the Files leaderboard) and rewards.
  • Show Your Work: Have journalists communicate back when community participation has influenced the reporting. Give your community background into how their stories and contributions helped shape your reporting and point out the impact it has had in the world.
  • Provide a Service: Jim Schachter discussed the importance of finding something that people care about, and identifying how you can serve that niche. At WNYC they recognized that sleep is a universal issue, and that most people wish they could be better rested. People come back to the project to see their data and gain real advice on improving their sleep. WFMU provides a critical place for people to discuss music, and provides an expansive music archive.

The panel covered a lot of ground, but here are a few other key pieces of advice:

  • Elevate diverse voices – See ProPublica’s RaceCard project.
  • Think about actions that are in line with your reporting – See WNYC’s Shine a Light on DHS project.
  • Set clear goals that can help you measure real impact – See Dick Tofel’s report on measuring impact.
  • Design matters – Great design helps bring people in, makes it easy for them to get involved, and encourages them to share.
  • Involve the newsroom – Don’t let engagement be siloed on one team. Build a culture of engagement across the organization and make sure reporters are deeply involved.

Finally, Fail Well: Community engagement can messy, complicated and challenging. All of the panelists talked about learning from failures and building on those failures to drive successful projects in the future. Jim Schachter reported that when WNYC built a call-in tool for listeners to contact their members of Congress it was too complex. They rebuilt it much more streamlined and saw engagement increase. WFMU has developed a great playlist commenting system, but before they got there they tried a blog format and an open forum model, both of which failed. But through the process of finding the right technology for their community, station manager Ken Freedman also learned a lot about cultivating civil conversation online, including developing what he called “Troll Whispering” to help manage challenging contributors without having to block them outright.

Our media can be a meeting place, where we come together not just to consume but also to collaborate. It can be a place that not just opens our eyes to the world around us, but also gives us opportunities to be part of that world. In spite of the polarization we see in so much of our society, or perhaps because of it, people are hungry to work together, to be better connected, and be part of something bigger than themselves.

We have an opportunity to rethink the role of news and media organizations in our communities, not as producers of a product, but as collaborators providing a service. Through new modes of community engagement we can be facilitators of critical conversations, agitators for transparency and accountability, and catalysts for building community. And those new roles can help us do better reporting, build more value, develop trust and create new kinds of support that can not just sustain, but strengthen and expand journalism.

Image by OpenSourceWay on Flickr. Used under creative commons.

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