Getting readers and interested members of the community together in a room to talk freely about their concerns and information needs is one of the simplest yet most underrated ways news organisations can engage with their audience and involve them in the reporting.

Your Voice Ohio is an initiative launched in 2017 by the Jefferson Center in the US, a non-profit organisation that works to involve the public in civil life and democracy by better informing them to make decisions.

Some 42 local news outlets across the state of Ohio are involved in the project, and they take a collaborative approach to community engagement through events, as well as sharing data and content.

Your Voice Ohio, which is funded by the Democracy Fund and the Knight Foundation, was born from a series of three events held by the Jefferson Center with eight media partners around the 2016 US election. Reporters met with citizens in northeast Ohio to find out the ways in which people wanted the election and the candidates to be covered and how they expected news organisations to provide them with information.

"After the election, news organisations in Ohio saw what we were doing and felt a little bit guilty that they had sort of missed the call on the elections so badly. I think that was a starting point for local media to think 'hey, we need to do more and listen to our audience'," said Andrew Rockway, programme director at the Jefferson Center, who works on Your Voice Ohio alongside project manager Doug Oplinger.

"Part of this project is using a variety of engagement approaches to see how we can build a capacity for outlets to do engagement work in the longterm. In addition to face-to-face conversations we're using tools like Hearken and GroundSource to try and see what works best in each community and why."

After the election, Your Voice Ohio began focusing on the opioid crisis in Ohio, a topic people frequently brought up in conversation and which also came up in some of the polling the team did back in 2016.

Both newsrooms and readers wanted to change how the crisis was being covered, Rockway said: reporters were frustrated with the way their coverage tended to focus mostly on stories of overdose and the negative impacts on the crisis, which in turn made the audience feel depressed and powerless.

"We wanted to shift that narrative a little bit to think about what information people really need, and what are some solutions or ideas that can shift this coverage so it's not just the negative impact, but also what we can actually do about it," he added.

Once funding was secured and the network of participating outlets was expanded to include rural media partners as well as the existing urban ones, the team started hosting face-to-face conversations with communities. They organised three events in northeast Ohio in October and a further five in southeast Ohio last month, which are two of the regions most affected by opioid overdoses.

So far, more than 300 people have participated in the free events. Three more meetings are scheduled to take place next month in central Ohio, for which more than 350 people have already signed up.

Each event lasts around two hours and accommodates between 100 and 120 people, who are recruited through reader call-outs, promotion in relevant Facebook groups, and through direct outreach to groups of interest, such as medical professionals, lawmakers and local government representatives.

Participants are divided into small groups of five or six people, usually with a reporter present at each table, and answer three questions: what does the opioid epidemic look like in their community, what do they see as causes of the epidemic in their community, and what steps they might take to combat the issue.

For each question, people share their answer with the group before moving into the discussion part to identify the similarities and differences in their responses. Reporters are also advised to act more like members of the community than a "third party eavesdropping on people's conversations" which helps attendees be more open, Rockway said. At the end of the events, participants discuss the next steps reporters can take to inform their communities, and kickstart the process by writing one question each for the journalists on a note card.

"The structure of the events gives reporters a sense of where their coverage is lacking, what solutions they might not be aware of, or if solutions are available, what are some of the gaps that exist.

"The questions at the end show what information journalists can provide, not necessarily as full stories, but as quick answers to questions like 'what resources are available in this community' or 'what are the police doing about this issue'."

Apart from steering the discussions, the team behind Your Voice Ohio also conducts background research on the topics that come out of these conversations. The aim is to find out what best practices and solutions are being employed in other communities around the world and collect them into databases that can be used to develop a solutions-focused approach to reporting on the opioid crisis.

Over the next few months, Your Voice Ohio will be rolling out Hearken and GroundSource to media partners in southwest and northwest Ohio to try and involve people who are less likely to attend events. They will also expand their focus with a second topic, the future of Ohio's economy.

"We've definitely seen a shift in coverage among our partners in how they cover addiction and opioids, for example not using images of needles in stories anymore, as that's a trigger for people.

"We hope this approach to engagement becomes part of their more regular workflow."

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