The American Journalism Project (AJP) is a US-based philanthropic organisation that works to build a new generation of impact-driven local newsrooms.
It does this through grant-making, capital investment and venture support. But it also researches, documents and shares a number of best practices for community reporting.
A recent survey of 5,000 Americans revealed what they truly want from local news. Nine themes emerged, broadly signalling that readers want a fuller and more representative picture of trustworthy stories on subjects that provide action and agency to their lives.
However, markets vary as much as audiences. Speaking on the Journalism.co.uk podcast, vice president of strategy and startups at AJP, Loretta Chao, reflected on replicating this work within your newsroom.
Hire community ambassadors
A project of this scale was only possible because AJP hired 100 paid community ambassadors. These are people who are deeply ingrained in communities; think churches, schools, etc.
Ideally, ambassadors are concerned citizens with strong networks. These are paid hourly positions, complete with a formal job description.
Hiring even a single ambassador is a smart way to diversify who can be employed in your organisation and its effect trickles down into the audience feedback you receive.
These people are expected to carry out their own phone interviews, focus groups, and text message campaigns within their circles. Bonus points if they are bilingual and are well-connected within communities where English is not a first language.
"Given today’s gig economy, there’s lots of people interested in this type of work," says Chao.
"You'll find people who have not thought about journalism day-in day-out, but then they get very interested because people are very concerned with the lack of information they are getting and the proliferation of misinformation and polarisation."
Text message campaigns
Texting is a two-way street. A popular tactic in the US is to use SMS and private-messaging platforms to field and respond to questions from audiences.
One of the 37 news organisations AJP works with is Outlier Media in Detroit, which prides itself on “service journalism” or “accountability reporting”. Its reporters text out valuable information to residents which holds landlords, municipal government and elected officials to account on long-standing problems.
Reporters can also receive questions, tips and information requests from their local readers.
Another example is Documented in New York, which instead opts for WhatsApp as this is more widely used by its Spanish speaking target audience. It has about 1000 people signed up for its investigations about the city's immigration policies.
Convert readers into reporters
A key finding of AJP’s research is that people want journalists to put their questions to local government. Why not go one better and give readers a chance to put their questions directly to officials?
That is exactly what the Documenters programme does, by partnering with community newsrooms to train and pay local readers to attend public meetings. These meetings are typically under-reported and can provide unexpected benefits.
"They also get so many story ideas from the questions residents are asking, because they basically have a line into what hundreds of people are wondering about their government each and every day," explains Chao.
Get creative with follow-through reporting
Chao says that appetite is there for the most serious beats like public safety amongst news audiences. The problem is with sensationalist headlines that do not follow-through into what happens next.
Journalists are busy and it is easy to move onto the next story. Different news formats can be easier to remember to update, though.
Creating a searchable database for audiences, for example, can be an easy solution. Journalists then only need to update key information, rather than turn around another news story that needs filing, copy-editing and publishing.
A second benefit to this would be to allow for public input. For criminal cases, for example, family members could upload photos and digital memorials for loved ones.
Avoid loaded words
Chao's top tip is to make no assumptions on your audiences’ news literacy.
If you are asking ordinary people to inform your work, then expect them to stumble over heavy journalism jargon or buzzwords like "the media".
Instead, lower the bar to participation and make the task easily understood.
"Let them know you’re talking about information that helps them get through the week, rather than what they’re seeing on TV about national, international and ideological subjects that don’t frankly really touch their daily lives immediately," says Chao.
"You can learn a lot by getting to that point."
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