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How to Listen Better

By Josh Stearns.

More than 30 tools, guides and examples to help journalists — and anyone else — be better listeners.

In my weekly newsletter, The Local Fix, I compiled a list of guides, tools, and examples of how newsrooms can listen more deeply to local communities. I’m sharing it here in case it can be useful to others, and to encourage people to add to the list.

Listening Articles and Guides

Photo by Simon Law, used via Creative Commons

Listening Projects in Newsrooms

Photo by runran, used via Creative Commons

Listening Tools and Models

Finally, I want you to know that I’m listening. Share your additions, examples, stories and more as comments on this post. Help grow this as a resource.

Reprinted with permission. Josh Stearns is Associate Director of the Public Square Program at the Democracy Fund. Follow him on Twitter at: photo by Don Graham, used via Creative Commons.


What is “Postcard Journalism”?

By Jorge Caraballo.

East Boston, Nuestra casa: A social journalism project that uses postcards to inform the Latino community in East Boston about the current housing crisis and the available resources to face it.

East Boston (Eastie), Boston’s fourth largest neighborhood, is being rapidly transformed. Its location and public facilities have made it attractive for a wave of developers and investors. They’re buying and renovating properties to rent them to young professionals and students who can pay much more than the Latino working class community that has been living there for more than two decades.

Postcard 2

The fear of being displaced can be felt all around the neighborhood. You hear it in casual conversations on the bus; you read it on the “room-for-rent” signs on the laundromat’s cork boards. It’s told by the families who just got an eviction notice as they walk around Eastie on Sundays to see if they’re lucky enough to find a unit with the old affordable prices.

I’ve been reporting displacement in East Boston since 2015, and I’ve seen how it has rapidly snowballed. One of the variables that contributes to Latinos’ displacement is lack of information: Few of them know that getting an eviction notice doesn’t mean they actually have to leave, that they have tenants rights no matter their legal status in the country, and that there are NGOs and lawyers who could provide them free legal assistance. East Boston Nuestra Casa seeks to make that information more accessible to the Latino community in Eastie.

Postcard 3

What is this project about?

East Boston, Nuestra Casa is a series of postcards that I made in collaboration with a group of Latino families who are facing eviction. The goal is to inform other Latinos about the causes of the housing crisis and the available resources they have to remain in the neighborhood.

We chose this printed format because it guarantees us that every tenant will receive the information directly to their home. Besides that, East Boston Nuestra Casa is a public Facebook page and a Facebook private group where more than 200 tenants are sharing their stories, questions and concerns.

This is a hybrid project between journalism and activism: It seeks to mitigate the anxiety caused by the housing crisis with useful information for the affected community.

Why postcards?

Because a postcard is an intimate medium: You feel it’s addressed only to you. In that it differs from a flyer, a brochure or other massive formats.

Postcard 4

Postcard 5

The first postcard is a panoramic of downtown Boston taken from Eastie. On the stone is carved an ironic truth.

What’s on the back of the postcards?

The back of the postcards is divided. The left side is the same on every card. It’s meant to hook readers by describing some of the most common causes of displacement: huge rent increase, eviction notices, negligent landlords. After getting your attention, you’ll find information about the community meetings where tenants can get free legal assistance. The message is brief and it calls for action:

Hundreds of Latino families are being displaced from their homes in East Boston. Don’t wait until the problem knocks at your door: We can still organize ourselves and resist so we can stay in the community.
Has your rent skyrocketed? Have you received an eviction notice? Is your landlord reluctant to fix the unit where you live? It doesn’t matter if you’re an undocumented immigrant or if you have legal status: You have rights. Come to the community meetings where Harvard lawyers and the NGO City Life/ Vida Urbana have allied with Eastie’s tenants to offer free legal assistance.

Where and when are the meetings?
28 Paris St., Next to Maverick Square, Every Wednesday from 6:30 p.m. — 8:00 p.m. (Food is served)
Find more stories in

Postcard 6

The design of the postcards was made by Colombian designer Laura Pérez.

The right section is different on each postcard. It’s handwritten and it combines both narrative and data to explain the dimensions of displacement. There are testimonies of Latinos who have been effectively evicted, and also of tenants who have won their cases in housing court. You can also find statistics about housing in Boston and read some policies that have been suggested to slow down displacement.

Each postcard is designed to be self-contained and work independently, but you can have a better picture of the housing crisis by reading all twelve of them.

Postcard 7

Postcard 8

A family dinner in East Boston.

How did all this get started?

I met most of the portrayed families thanks to the weekly community meetings facilitated by City Life / Vida Urbana, a nonprofit focused on housing and displacement. On average, 50 tenants — most of them Latinos — meet every Wednesday in the basement of an East Boston church to share updates about their cases, exchange support and helpful tips, discuss legal strategies with the lawyers and plan actions to raise awareness in other neighborhoods. It was in those meetings where I got to know the problems of the community and where I began thinking on how could I help them as a journalist.

Postcard 9

There has been a constant concern during the community meetings: Thousands of Latinos in the neighborhood are ignorant of the resources available to help them fight their cases and try to stay in their homes. In response to that, I suggested creating an information campaign to reach those people and engage them with a discussion about displacement.

At the time, I was taking a photography class with artist and activist Lara Baladi at MIT, and her course helped me to come up with the postcards idea. I presented it to the community and they liked it. More than a dozen people — most of them women — raised their hands to volunteer. Even though many of them are undocumented, they were not discouraged with the idea of their portraits and testimonies circulating around the neighborhood. (However, to protect their privacy, we omitted their last names and, obviously, their addresses.)

How did the community participate?

While taking the portraits in their apartments, the families told me about how the threat of displacement has affected their health, their jobs or the education of their children. But even though they’re facing a very difficult situation, the process of making this project together was a happy one. They invited me to their family parties (where they made me drink aguardiente, a strong Colombian liquor that I had avoided for two years). I was with them until late in the night when their kids were getting ready for bed. I watched them play cards for hours, and I spent afternoons in their homes where they fed me with treats from the delicious Salvadoran bakery.

After taking the photos, we wrote the stories. I collected data about the housing market in Boston, and also about Latin American community. I found, for example, that the value of the properties in Eastie has increased 36 percent in the last two years, and that Latinos are the demographic group that earns the least money in Boston and across the United States. We put together those numbers with their testimonies.

Finally, we were lucky to have the support of Laura Pérez, a talented Colombian designer who created the graphic identity of the project.

What’s the stage of the process right now?

We have printed 5000 postcards thanks to the support of Northeastern University. Now we’re distributing them in specific areas of the neighborhood where the lawyers have seen a fast increase in the number of properties bought by corporations, a pattern that signals a potential increase in evictions in the next few months.

During these two months, a dozen volunteers have walked around the streets and put the postcards in the mailboxes that are marked with Latinos’ names (by law, we’re only allowed to put them in mailboxes that don’t belong to USPS.) We’re also handing them to Latinos on the street, in laundromats, and at bus stops and subway stations. Their response has been surprising: People want to talk about this, they know it could happen to anyone at any point. And, yes, most of them didn’t know about the meetings.

Postcard 12

We’re distributing the postcards in areas like Eagle Hill, where the housing market is moving fast.

How are you measuring the impact of the project?

You could measure the impact by comparing the lists of attendance to the community meetings before, while and after distributing the postcards. If the strategy is successful we expect to see more Latinos every Wednesday.

The second metric would be the number of followers and their engagement in the Facebook private group.

Postcard 13

However, we think that this project is already having an impact on the community. The collaborative process of making the postcards and the way they’re being distributed is starting a conversation in the neighborhood. The housing crisis in Boston has been well reported by local outlets, but not in Spanish.

What’s your personal interest in doing this work?

I’m one of the approximately 20,000 Latinos who live in East Boston. I felt at home when I arrived to the neighborhood, but I was also aware that my privilege as an international student was problematic: I’m one of the many students or young professionals moving to Eastie and competing with the working class community for housing units. I’m part of the problem, but could I also work with the community to find possible solutions?

Postcard 14

Can this media tactic be replicated in other neighborhoods or cities?

East Boston is not the only neighborhood facing displacement in the U.S. We want this postcard journalism project to be useful for other communities that are in a similar situation. That’s why we are sharing the editable files of the postcards and a short guide of how to use them. The design is under a Creative Commons license (Attribution 4.0 International), so feel free to modify it and adjust it to your needs. Some of the photos are also licensed with Creative Commons (Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International) and you can download them here.

Have media outlets shown interest in this project?

Yes, and it has been very important. Nieman Lab, one of the most important journalism publications in the U.S. wrote a nice review about the project. And Univisión, the largest outlet in Spanish in the U.S., also wrote about us. That is helping to call attention about what’s happening in East Boston and is spreading the idea of postcard journalism and making it available for other communities in the country.

Have other reporters used postcards to tell their stories?

Yes. Photographers Anastasia Taylor-Lind (English/Swedish) and Mónica Gónzalez (Mexican), have done beautiful works using postcards as their medium. Do you know about someone else? We would love to hear about it.

This is how the twelve postcards look together.

You can see more photos, read the texts of the postcards and the research behind the project here.

Jorge Caraballo is the Engagement Editor for Radio Ambulante. He is a Colombian journalist and photographer, who recently completed a master’s degree in Media Innovation at Northeastern University on a Fulbright scholarship.

Reprinted with permission.


How to Listen to and Engage Your Community

By Mónica Guzmán.

People don’t just consume news today. They participate in it.

People have access to vast and varied information. They pursue news on their own time, and on their own terms, connecting with others who share and help satisfy their curiosity about their world.

This presents an opportunity for news publishers strained by shrinking resources and growing competition: Now more than ever, journalists can engage their audiences as contributors, advisors, advocates, collaborators and partners.

This study describes in detail how newsrooms and independent journalists can grow their readership, boost their relevance and find new sources of revenue by listening to and learning from their audiences.

Reporters and editors can apply this knowledge to all phases of news production — including story selection, reporting, and distribution. These strategies also can help with the longer-term development of beats, sources, formats, and innovative news products. Over time, publishers embracing these strategies can strengthen their business and increase the impact of their work.

This report is part of the American Press Institute’s series of Strategy Studies, which offer detailed, practical strategic guidance about a critical issue that journalists and news organizations need to address.

For this study I talked with 25 news leaders and innovators to distill best practices in audience and community engagement. I consulted reporters and editors, managers and strategists, pioneers and leading thinkers in this field. These innovators work in many places: in legacy newspapers, digitally native outlets, radio and television stations, hyperlocal news outlets and technology startups. They serve national, local and hyperlocal audiences and have for-profit and nonprofit business models.

Collaboration is not about what your audience can do for you, but what you can do with your audience. 

To be clear: This report is not a social media guide, a technical manual or a primer on marketing yourself or your stories. This is about how journalists can genuinely collaborate with audiences to improve their work, not simply to promote it. To the extent that certain technologies and promotional strategies help strengthen your work, we will address them. But this report was written with a point of view: Collaboration is not about what your audience can do for you, but what you can do with your audience.

To examine best practices, we’ll work through the basics of how to effectively interact with and tune in to the communities that can most strengthen your journalism. Then, we’ll look at a few ways newsrooms can build their capacity to engage their audiences.

Download a PDF of the full report.

Reprinted with permission from our colleagues at the American Press Institute. Mónica Guzmán is the co-founder and editor of The Evergrey.


Listen More Effectively

By Annemarie Dooling.

When I agreed to teach audience development to a class of undergrads at West Virginia University (WVU), I wanted to focus on a few key segments of community management.

Those segments would be the core aspects of audience development: basic interviewing skills, user behavior, and safety and moderation. After all, a good foundation in these skills can help newsrooms convert a one-time reader into an evangelist. What I didn’t count on was how much I would first have to teach the skills of basic listening.

Estelle Philibert earsListening is a skill that everyone thinks they do well. In truth, most of us are just waiting for the other person to finish talking so we can speak.

With the often-earned reputation of harassing commenters and anonymous Twitter trolls burned into our minds, many established journalists have created coping strategies based around listening less, and asserting themselves more. I had hoped that their future colleagues of a younger age would be less burned by these problems, and more open to community conversations. What I learned was that these students needed just as much listening instruction as the most experienced of journalists. I ended up dedicating a few classes to focusing on the basics of how to really hear what people are saying. Here’s what I did.

For a group of students just starting to learn about journalism, my WVU class was really good at certain things. They spent the semester working on the 100 Days in Appalachia project, learning about what constitutes a community (not just geography, certainly not in Appalachia), and how to speak to people and communities in a way that is not intrusive or bothersome. They became great at figuring out what the hook should be in a local interest story, and choosing what format – text or visual – a story should take on. But skillful listening was something that continued to escape them.

The hardest lesson to teach around listening is that you’re not doing it right the first time around. What do most people do instead of hearing people? We take in specific phrases and words. We become activated and excited by ideas that mimic our own, and then we wait for our turn to say something about those ideas.

After a semester working on our project, here are some of the most important lessons we learned:

If you want to become a good listener, you have to put yourself within a totally foreign group of people, about which you know almost nothing.

Aliens x 3

Having no base of knowledge means you are forced to more actively listen, in order to understand what’s happening. To then contextualize and make sense of things, you need to ask more thorough questions that relate specifically to what someone has just said. In journalism, the difference between a good interview and a simple list of responses is your ability to take hints from what has been said, and being willing to expand or shift the direction of your story at a moment’s notice.

I found that the students were a little nervous about leaving their bubbles and asking questions, but once they had been pushed into doing it, they weren’t shy to identify and reach out people. The one assignment they all achieved flawlessly was to find a group they knew nothing about, and to contact them; several utilized Facebook groups to target new interests and cultures. That openness is something even seasoned veterans can learn from.


When asking questions to people who are different from you, you need to learn to hold your tongue when they start to respond.

Royyan Wijaya mouth icon

When they’ve finished speaking, you have to focus on responding with direct replies based on what the person said, not on shifting the conversation to the story you want them to tell. Take in and assess what’s being told to you, and listen for details that you want to learn more about. Staying quiet is a problem we all have: as a reporter and as a human being, we want to relate with the person we’re talking to, and to ask questions to further your existing work. However, by pausing, taking deep breaths, and focusing on the words and thoughts being expressed to you, your work will be all the better for it.


Don’t forget to ask “Why?”

Question by Ian Porrat

Really think about the words you use when you ask a question. Do they help the flow of the conversation the way you intended? Are your questions open-ended enough to show you are curious about the direction of the answer? Be understanding, be empathetic, and don’t assume you know the answer before you ask the question.

None of this means you have to abandon your ability to be critical of what someone is saying. But whether you agree or not with someone, actually hearing them and trying to understand what they are saying and why, are the most important places to start.

This essay is part of The Coral Project’s “Build Newsroom Skills” Guide. For a treasure trove of resources, please see all of their guidesCC-BY-4.0

Annemarie Dooling is Director of Programming at, and the Knight Innovator in Residence 2017 at West Virginia University’s Reed College of Media. She formerly ran community at The Huffington Post.

The Noun Project icons: LlisoleEstelle PhilibertMohanabrabu BMZackary Cloe, icons mind, Royyan Wijaya, and Ian Porrat

Beyond Broadcast: Why We Need to Listen

By Andrew Haeg, CEO of GroundSource.

This is the text of a keynote I gave to the Entrepreneurial Journalism Educators Summit at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism on July 15th, 2016. 

First of all I fully embrace the irony of being invited to give a talk about listening.

It’s like being given an award for humility.

But I’ll take it, either way.

I’m going to talk today about why we need listening more than ever now in journalism, and provide some specific examples that I hope will inspire you and your students to build listening into your work

I came to this work of cultivating a culture of listening in news from my work in public media, and my own personal epiphany.

I was a reporter first. I covered business. I was constantly stymied by PR people, by minders, and I felt a gap between the stories I reported and what I felt they could be— what the real story was.

I remember doing one piece critical of 3M, a large Minnesota manufacturing company, and afterwards getting emails full of rich, sometimes strongly-worded detail about all the things I had missed.

Hmm, I thought, that was pretty cool — but wouldn’t it have been so much better if I heard from those people before the story ran?

And then once that bug was thoroughly implanted in my brain, I began looking with a critical eye at journalism of all kinds, and I began to suspect that much, if not most, of journalism was far short of the platonic ideal I’d imbibed in journalism school.

So I co-founded the Public Insight Network and later founded GroundSource, to systematically open up the reporting process to more voices, more perspectives, more expertise.

While these values of reaching out and listening to inform our reporting were suddenly obvious to me, I realized that the culture of the profession was deeply resistant to these ideas.

But along the way I also took a master class in organizational behavior and culture. For while these values of reaching out and listening to inform our reporting were suddenly obvious to me, I realized that the culture of the profession was deeply resistant to these ideas.

Because the routines of journalism, which were set in place when all we could do is call one person at a time, valued easily quoted expert voices over the often messy process of listening to many voices and making sense of what they were trying to say.

The Goat Must Be Fed — a report on obstacles to innovation and digital tool adoption in newsrooms

A report from a few years ago highlighted the stultifying effects ingrained routines and behaviors are having on newsrooms, specifically with the adoption of new digital tools.

But I also think the same cultural and workflow obstacles are preventing us from trying new ways of engaging our communities, and truly listening to them.

Our Businesses Need Us to Listen

But I’ve started to see a change, as more of us realize that our news organizations are in grave danger.

That we can no longer count on near monopolistic reach.

That clicks don’t equal loyal audience.

That we need to constantly tune our understanding of how audiences interact with our journalism, what information they need, what technologies they use, and how they relate to our brands.

The paradox here is that while media consumption has never been higher, trust has never been lower. Scale and trust are often inversely correlated.

Instead of strengthening social bonds, or creating an informed public, or the idea of news as a civic good, a democratic necessity, [news] creates gangs, which spread instant falsehoods that fit their views, reinforcing each other’s beliefs, driving each other deeper into shared opinions, rather than established facts.

– Katherine Viner, How Technology Disrupted the Truth, The Guardian 7.12.16


The ones who will win the race to scale are the social media giants, and their interests — and the design of their products — are often at least in tension with, if not antithetical to, the democratic and business aims of journalism, and the interests of our communities.

The broadcast mentality grafted onto Twitter and Facebook meanwhile too often treats social media primarily as a distribution channel, hoping for virality, even if it poisons the public well, and turns us all into news junkies constantly checking for updates.

I think we’re all beginning to feel that news is no longer always a force for good, and that changing that dynamic is essential to our survival.

Our Communities Require Us to Listen

And the events of the last couple of weeks and years, from Ferguson to Baltimore to Baton Rouge to St. Paul have underscored why we need to listen now more than ever.

The depth of the crisis in black communities has been a tragic daily reality for many, but as a popular hashtag puts it:

Mainstream media is by and large a white institution, and so when decisions are made to cover our increasingly diverse communities by a small cadre of journalists who look like each other, and often live in the same neighborhoods, we all lose out.


And it was in part to look beyond the parochialness and homogenity of where I spent much of my professional career that I moved to Macon, Georgia to join the Center for Collaborative Journalism.

I moved for a bunch of reasons. It was a stable platform and a fascinating place to incubate GroundSource, and it was a place where I felt I could broaden and deepen my view of America’s racial and cultural history.


I lived there for three years teaching some of these concepts of community and listening and outreach at Mercer University and developing one of what is becoming a series of “listening posts” designed to welcome in people who have been left out of the public conversation

My favorite moments were getting out into the community, just talking to people — people like Devontrez and Demariou, who are part of the Listening Post, and whose interview we broadcast on GPB. Listen here, it’s short and good!

But we didn’t approach them to talk about their problems, their victimhood. We just talked.

What I loved about this conversation and many others we had while in Macon, was that we went out into communities plagued by all sorts of issues, from third-world school dropout rates, Chicago levels of violence, racial disparities as stark as South Africa.

But we didn’t approach them to talk about their problems, their victimhood. We just talked.

And Devontrez especially, who would hardly say a word when we first started talking, after the conversation was over said he really enjoyed it, and had told us stuff he’d never really told anyone.

He smiled.

He told us that he dreamed one day of leaving, and moving to Japan.

And so, this idea of listening beyond the problems, reaching out to people whose stories aren’t being told, is not only important to our business, and to the people in our community, it’s also deeply gratifying and humanizing for everyone involved

And it’s always surprising, in ways that journalism too rarely was for me, or at least the way I was trained to practice it — the talk-to-three-experts-and-one-“real”-person approach to reporting.

And so recently I returned home, and just weeks later clicked on a Facebook live link in my twitter feed with the hashtag of a suburban neighborhood where I do some of my grocery shopping wondering why on earth #FalconHeights was trending.

And what I saw brought home how I need not look any further than my own backyard to understand the potency of racism, the crisis borne of slavery and the Civil War.

Because this man, Philando Castile, who served lunch to the kids of my neighborhood, was shot and killed just over a mile from my home.

By the Minnesota State Fair, which my grandpa — a farmer and radio man — led for a few years.

And right next to the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus, which serves the farmers of the region with new talent, new seeds.

In other words, Castile was killed right in the heart of what for generations has defined Minnesota.

But that’s not the Minnesota he experienced.

And so, while we find ourselves surrounded by opportunities to express ourselves, to broadcast our lives by text, video, emojis, etc., our profession is too rarely inclined to listened to people like Phil unless something’s going down.

So I believe we need to start teaching journalism as a more humble profession, one which seeks not to be the smartest person in the room, but the best listener. One that sees audiences as people, as teachers, as sources of inspiration and expertise.

That kind of culture begins with this question.

How can we possibly pretend to know?

How can we possibly pretend to know what it’s like to be pulled over 52 times, like Philando Castile was, and to fear for your safety and maybe even your life every time you get in the car?

How can we possibly pretend to know anything about our communities, about our audiences, if we continue to do journalism as we’ve always done it?

I believe this question begins to unfetter us from our narrow-minded ways, and open up new potential for highly relevant, engaged, collaborative journalism.

The Good News: Technology Enables Listening

The good news here — and the reason I think you as teachers of our young entrepreneurial journalists are so critical, is that we now have the means to listen at scale.

Every phone has the ability to receive as well as transmit and channels like SMS and FB Messenger and Whatsapp are true exchanges

GroundSource Texting

The technology to listen at scale is here, but these are not purely broadcasting tools — they’re conversational interfaces in which audiences expect to communicate back to us..

In a few years, more than 2.5 billion people have a messaging app on their phone.

In 1926, playwright Bertolt Brecht envisioned a utopian future for the still-emergent technology of radio.

“Radio is one-sided when it should be two. It is purely an apparatus for distribution, for mere sharing out. So here is a positive suggestion: change this apparatus over from distribution to communication. The radio would be the finest possible communication apparatus in public life, a vast network of pipes. That is to say, it would be if it knew how to receive as well as transmit, how to let the listener speak as well as heaer, how to bring him into a relationship instead of isolating him. On this principle the radio should step out of the supply business and organise its listeners as suppliers.”

– Bertolt Brecht, The Radio as an Apparatus of Communication, 1926


We now have the opportunity to reimagine our relationship with audiences from a one-way transmission, to a two-way exchange, just as Bertolt Brecht envisioned 90 years ago.

But, I think we’ve made very little progress towards this ideal. The culture of journalism values talking and broadcasting over listening.

“It must follow the prime objective of turning the audience not only into pupils but into teachers.

– Bertolt Brecht, The Radio as an Apparatus of Communication, 1926


There is often a deep disdain for the audience, and comments on stories and social media flame wars only exacerbate that.

Three (Actually, Four) Principles for Listening

So I want to leave you with a few principles you can put to work in your classroom and your work tomorrow.

1. Get out of the building

Once we’ve accepted the premise that we don’t know everything, then we need to act like it.

Steve Blank’s book Four Steps to the Epiphany is the bible for starting a business, along with the Lean Startup by Eric Ries.

The core premise to the Lean Startup, and to Steve Blank’s guidance for entrepreneurs, is to first get out of the building. The insights that will drive your business, and your journalism, are out there.

Getting out of the building means making yourself vulnerable, talking to strangers, asking why, listening to context as well as to what people say.

It also means gaining empathy for people. It means observing, listening for beliefs and not just quotes. It’s a different kind of listening than we’re used to doing as journalists — less focused on the transaction and more focused on understanding, sensing, feeling.

I’ve worked on one-off listening projects in Detroit, Phoenix, Cleveland, Brooklyn, South Africa, St. Paul and more. But the one place where I’ve seen this idea of listening as the operating premise for a new kind of journalism is in New Orleans.

Listening Post creator Jesse Hardman stands next to a mobile recording station he set up at a grocery store in New Orleans.

Producer Jesse Hardman worked in developing countries helping get local radio stations established, and he brought his media development expertise back to the US. (Read the excellent two-part back story on the Listening Post here, and here.)

The idea of The Listening Post project is to meet people where they are, whether through public art recording devices, text messages, face-to-face meetings, etc. — and build a community-wide conversation where all voices are welcome.

2. Try New Things

The second directive is to get off the hamster wheel of our daily routines and try new things. Some may work, some will most definitely fail, but it’s in the effort that we expand our sense of what’s possible

We build trust when we make ourselves vulnerable. We grow as professionals and as human beings, and begin to feel connected to the communities we serve.

All of this takes effort, and failure, and new ways of working. We need to think creatively, and figure out what kinds of questions and what kinds of outreach will spur people to step forward, so we might be able to effectively listen.

In Macon we tried something new recently. A group that ran the soap box derby wanted to use our platform so people could text into a phone number and vote for the car they liked most

The derby is one of Macon’s most diverse events and we thought it might be a great way for people from around the community to start talking with us

And sure enough, in a few hours, more than 600 people had texted in, and now hundreds of them are part of the listening post, sharing their perspective on other important community issues like transportation or gun control.

As things work, as little pieces fit into place, you begin to see the shape of a process. The trick is moving from pieces that work to a routine that fits the modern workflow of newsrooms.

Because as much as we need to change journalism, we can only do so by fitting into existing flows.

3. Learn and repeat

We recently worked with Univision to build a Facebook Messenger bot for them for a soccer tournament. They simply turned the bot on, didn’t promote it, and more than 700 people began messaging in.

As they interacted with the bot, they began telling stories, sharing an intimate view of their lives through the lens of a sport they loved.

“We need to learn how to engage in a meaningful conversation with the audience instead of treating them as headline clickers. But we need to create a workflow where these things fit into the routine.”

– Carlos Martinez de la Serna, head of innovation, Univision Beta


Experiments like these are part of a larger strategy, which more newsrooms are beginning to embrace, of genuinely listening and responding to people instead of treating them like a mass audience

As more of us make that intellectual leap, then comes the really hard part, which is building systems to support that work, day in, day out.

Just as we have for more than 100 years built technologies and networks to support sending signals and text to the masses, just as we developed businesses to support that work, just as we developed culture and habits to feed those one-way transmissions.

So must we now create new routines, new habits and cultures around listening. That takes understanding how we work, how we want to work, and endless iteration and reiteration.

4. Love

But all of that work starts with a word we’re not comfortable using in journalism. Love.

We’re trained, acculturated to be jaded, hard-bitten, world weary. We’re supposed to believe that when people are mad at us we’re doing our job. We’re supposed to keep the public at arm’s length, and by god, don’t read the comments!

But I truly believe, to quote the title of Jay Allison’s book on Story Corps, that listening is an act of love

If you love your community then you assume best intentions, even if they come packaged in ad hominem, anger, even what appears to be hate. You believe that there’s a kernel of humanity in everyone, that everyone has a story to tell.

And besides, listening is and will remain one of the few things that we do better than the robots, no matter how much they try and fake it.




Yes, engaging with your readers will help you make money. Another study proves it.

Bitch Media just released a one-year study they did to see if using Hearken to engage with their readers would result in more people becoming paying supporters of the media organization. Much to our delight (but not surprise), the answer was a resounding “yes” — readers who engage are more likely to become financial backers, and that engagement effort will more than pay for itself.

The study is a good read for anyone working in news, particularly at a place with a business model that includes direct audience support by way of subscriptions or membership. (And as advertising rates for news organizations continue to decline, paying subscribers and membership models are increasingly looking like a worthwhile approach.) When you’re asking the audience directly for support, there’s no more compelling argument to give then “we truly listen to you, and actually make the work you’re asking for.”

While it might be news to some news organizations that meaningful, direct engagement with the public translates into bottom-line wins, it’s something that many other industries have known and tested for a long time.

The case study was produced as part of the Innovation Fund grant program run by the Institute for Nonprofit News and funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Democracy Fund.

Here are four of our favorite nuggets:

  • “Hearken-engaged readers, Bitch Media learned, were between two and five times more likely to convert to sustaining membership than ordinary readers. … The conversion rates were so dramatic that Bitch Media’s editorial and engagement teams plan to integrate Hearken into more of its content this year.”
  • “Over the course of the project, Bitch Media published 20 pieces of content prompted by a Hearken question and influenced by readers’ pre-publication input. … As expected, audience engagement went up. That, after all, is what Hearken promises to do. With Hearken-involved stories, readers spent an average of 9 minutes and 21 seconds either reading or listening. In comparison, readers spent 7 minutes and 35 seconds, on average, for stories that were not informed by a Hearken question.”
  • “To cover or exceed the costs associated with the Hearken rollout, it needed to add 48 new members who had engaged with the platform during the year-long experiment. In the end, it added 55 new members thanks to Hearken. That translates into a projected $7,000 in support in the first year and — because the average member lifespan is 20.4 weeks — should also translate into another $4,901 in support in the organization’s 2017 budget cycle.”

Read the case study by publisher Kate Lesniak over on the INN website here.

Looking for more proof that audience engagement is great for the business side of your newsroom, not just the editorial side?

  • Bay Curious has proven to be extremely popular and widely viewed, generating 11 to 15 times more page views than the newsroom’s other stories. These stories are responsible for more engagement with audiences than KQED typically sees in their other blog posts.”
    — A third party study of Hearken partner KQED
  • WBEZ compared the emails generated from their Hearken-powered series Curious City against their CRM (customer relationship manager) and found those emails were 56% new leads for membership.
    — Source: WBEZ
  • Charlottesville Tomorrow found they were able to charge six times more for display advertising alongside their public-powered series Curious Cville than for traditional digital advertising spots.

Reprinted with permission from Hearken. News organizations use Hearken to meaningfully engage the public as a story develops from pitch through publication.

2018: The Year of Listening

For his Nieman Lab prediction last year, Andrew Haeg, founder and CEO of GroundSource, predicted that 2017 would be “The Year of Listening.” He wrote:

“Not only have the digital dimes not added up, but our addiction to scale and its primary fuel, social media, have created the illusion of expanding reach while actually eroding what made us indispensable in the first place: our role as trusted guides to a rapidly changing world.”

In order to earn the trust of the public, he urged newsrooms to start by listening — by “tuning into the concerns and voices of the whole community.”

Turns out that Andrew was off by a year. 2018 is actually “The Year of Listening.”

With the smoke bomb of 2017 now clearing, newsrooms can see that better listening and engagement are no longer “nice to have,” but are absolutely critical priorities for making good on their democratic obligations, as well as for their financial well-being.

Throughout 2018, then, the News Integrity Initiative is hosting a celebration of innovative community journalism. We will highlight creative, inspiring examples of newsrooms listening to and engaging with their communities, as well as civic dialogue projects that are fostering understanding and respect between people from diverse backgrounds. You will hear from a variety of innovative and just plain awesome folks about how they think about listening in their work and lives, as well as what we’re learning from research on bridging divides, and the science of change.

We also will host events and workshops throughout the year to help imagine and bring to fruition the opportunities for our communities when we commit to listening and learning from one another.

We’ve gotten a head start by supporting a number of tools and guides for better listening and engagement, and we will be sharing brand new ones with you, too. We also will be offering some special opportunities for you to experiment with them and get expert help.

On top of all of that, we’ve got a few tricks up our sleeves that will be both inspirational and fun.

Join us for The Year of Listening, won’t you? Send us your thoughts and tips on listening, cool projects you think we should know about, ideas for events, or other activities you think we should consider this year. We’re all ears.

And please bookmark, where we will be sharing inspiration, resources, and lots more information all year long. Follow us on Twitter (also Molly de Aguiar + Jenny Choi) and Facebook.

And stay tuned for more announcements soon!