Engagement in Storytelling and Story Gathering

Through social media, events, and traditional (paper and email) correspondence, journalists have more opportunities than ever to engage with the public around their work.

This accessibility is influencing not only how audiences interact with content, but also the creation of new types of journalistic output.

Participation in the Story Process

“We did a project called The Recession Generation,“ recalls Jim Simon, former

From the series, The Recession Generation. 86 Photo by Erika Schultz/Seattle Times.

managing editor of the Seattle Times, “about people who graduated from college in 2009, in the teeth of the recession. [We] used graduates of three high schools to really get the stories from them from the bottom up.”

Sona Patel, who runs the New York Times’ e orts around crowdsourcing and reader-sourced reporting, and co-leads the Gray Lady’s team of social media editors, led the initiative while she was still at the Seattle Times. As she explained to Adweek in 2012, this project is one of the first to have social media at its heart.

“It was the driving force of the project, because it was how we found a lot of people that we ended up featuring,” she says.

Patel’s team created private Facebook groups for each of the three high schools, with Adweek noting how “they cultivated the three groups by posting links to articles, engaging with members, and ultimately asking the members to take a survey on what life during the recession has been like. The paper was very clear and transparent that the stories might be used in a package for the paper.”

It was “an interesting experiment,” Jim Simon recalls, stressing the value that can be derived from engaging directly with communities on social media.

Putting the Audience in the Driver’s Seat

Simon also highlights the work done by Hearken in getting to getting readers to ask

KUOW’s online and on-air investigation

questions, and journalists and media outlets answer them. The company’s approach, as they pithily describe in their Twitter bio, is clear: “Listen to your audiences first, not last. Makes for better everything.”

Ellen Mayer, an engagement consultant at Hearken, describes the fourfold process behind their Public- Powered Journalism:

  1. Audience members submit questions they’d like the newsroom to investigate.
  2. Journalists select a handful of those questions and put them up for a vote.
  3. Audience members vote for the question they’re most curious about.
  4. Newsroom answers the winning question


Benefits for Reporters and Audiences of the Hearken Model (Source: Hearken)

One example of a recent story from the Pacific Northwest that used this approach is from KUOW Public Radio in Puget Sound, Washington. They addressed a specific question from a younger listener: “Is there really a giant octopus under the Tacoma Narrows Bridge?”

Further south, several San Francisco news providers answered listeners’ questions about homelessness at Bay Area radio station KQED (whose popular series Bay Curious runs entirely o audience questions) as part of a wider week of coordinated coverage on this topic.

Mayer outlined in a recent Medium post the potential bene ts for both journalists and audiences of Hearken’s approach.

Leveraging Digital-First to Improve Output on Analogue Media

In the digital age, few daily newspapers hold back their reporting—except perhaps a major scoop—for their print editions. As Lou Brancaccio, editor emeritus of the Vancouver Columbian (Washington) explains, news providers can no longer afford to be second:

The worst thing that can happen to a newspaper is that somebody reads some news from their Facebook friend, they go to the Columbian website to see if we have it, and we don’t have it.

Now we have it, but we have it in a reporter’s head, and he is waiting to nish his story completely before he puts it up online. And that’s too late.

It’s a losing battle to think that you are the only one with news. That’s old- school thinking. That’s thinking from 30 years ago that we’re the only ones with this news, because the odds are somebody else has it, and if you don’t get it up rst somebody else will.

As a result, Brancaccio and many other editors are urging reporters to publish the bare bones of the story online and then esh it out as they go.

In addition to avoiding the appearance of being late to a story, there’s a further journalistic bene t to harnessing this tactic. Brancaccio notes how “people will comment on that story [online] before it ever gets into our print edition the next morning, and we will sometimes use those comments in our print story for the next morning.”

This approach not only shows audiences that their comments are valued and an important part of the engagement/feedback loop, but it also enables the print publication to bene t from additional insights and opinions provided by their online audience.

Read about this and more in the Agora report.

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