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Credit: By Charles Clegg on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Journalism conferences and events will often talk about the 'rules of engagement' – what are the best off and on-platform approaches to building a two-way rapport with the audience?

In a session at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia today (8 April), the conversation on engagement also covered the tools and technology available to newsrooms, as well as tips for crowdsourcing stories from the community.

Make sure it is feasible for everyone to contribute

“There’s an opportunity for news organisations to use crowdsourcing in everyday news reports,” said Marc Lavallee, editor of interactive news at The New York Times. “It doesn't have to be only for big, flashy things.”

An example of crowdsourcing at the NYT includes ‘Chicago under Rahm Emanuel: Readers respond’, a story which received hundreds of responses from readers sharing their experiences.

The final piece published featured a synthesis of their answers more prominently, with an additional layer of analysis from the outlet’s journalists.

This format has become a weekly staple for the organisation, Lavallee said, and it has been adapted for small, medium and large scale crowdsourced projects to also include multimedia, such as videos, images and audio according to the topic.

“The key element for us is making sure that across all of these, the barriers of entry are really low. People don't have to be registered users or subscribers to submit their stories,” he added.

Share your vision and expectations of the project before crowdsourcing

Jacopo Ottaviani, freelance data journalist, said crowdsourcing allows you to tap into stories that might be trickier to find just by going out and talking to people.

Ottaviani worked on a cross-border data journalism project called Generation E, which aimed to showcase the data and stories of Southern Europeans who left their countries, specifically Italy, Spain, Greece and Portugal.

The has been published in several languages and in multiple European outlets such as Germany’s Correct!v and its foundation was a Google form that asked people structured questions about their reasons for leaving, their intentions of coming back, and what they were doing after migrating.

“People are motivated to tell their stories because they know there are others around them in the same situation, both in the country they’re living in and the one they left,” said Ottaviani.

“A crucial thing for us was to explain our philosophy, as journalists, for this project before starting the crowdsourcing process.

“We told people our mission was to use this data and their stories to leverage their community and break the stereotypes around it.”

Use tools to leverage the audience’s expertise

So what are some of the tools newsrooms of any size can use to maximise engagement with their audience?

One of them is GroundSource, a platform created with mobile in mind and with the idea that everyone should have the means to share their story.

Andrew Haeg, founder and chief executive of GroundSource, said it was initially built around SMS technology – readers would simply text a number to provide information – but the rise of messaging apps has allowed the approach to be expanded to platforms such as WhatsApp and Telegram.

GroundSource is an automated process and works like a structured interview or survey – readers are prompted with more questions depending on the answers they provide.

“Over time, as you build contacts, you build a list of sources that you can narrow down by geography or previous contributions,” Haeg said.

“And this ongoing relationship with sources can be leveraged throughout the newsroom.”

In the United States, ProPublica is using GroundSource to investigate rent control abuse in New York City, inviting people to text them their experiences by posting fliers in the communities they want to reach.

Haeg said the aim is to reach the people whose voices “aren’t being heard” and there are no expectations that people should send fully articulate messages or consider themselves citizen journalists – anyone can send a text.

“By using this intimate, one-to-one conversation as a form of engagement you get people talking about their experiences, not just their opinions and you get a sense of the community talking to itself,” he added.

Don't underestimate people's knowledge

Another tool is Harvis, developed by Andrew DeVigal, endowed chair in journalism innovation and civic engagement at the Agora Journalism Centre of the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication.

Harvis aims to “visualise the knowledge harvested from the community”, said DeVigal.

The mobile web app can be used for events such as gatherings, conferences or town meetings, although it was initially built to gather people’s reaction to documentary films produced about social issues.

If a group of people are watching a film or discussing on a topic, through Harvis they have the opportunity to: first identify themselves – say whether they are students, activists or educators, for example; swipe up or down in the app to state whether or not a particular scene or piece of information has impacted them; and finally provide information about their expertise and how they can contribute to the topic.

For publishers using Harvis, the app provides data on the levels of engagement throughout the event, allowing them to visualise any polls or comments taken during it or drill down into how a specific category of community members has engaged and when.

“Feedback from people using the tool said it allows them to get to the issue faster, so they can start look at solutions," said DeVigal.

“We built it from the premise that we are respecting the expertise and knowledge we bring together from our audience to look at social issues happening in a community."

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