BREAKOUT SESSION: How do we get reporters and editors to actively learn from our readers?

Session Host: Taylyn Washington-Harmon
Session Reporter: Jackie Hai
Participants: Lillian Mongeau, Dahlia Bazzaz, Ariel Zirulnick, Andrew Rockway, Courtney Breese, Michelle Garcia, Amy Wang

Issue: it can be difficult for editors and reporters to listen to larger communities because they tend to make assumptions that we know best. There’s been a major disconnect between the audience and what the newsroom is reporting on.

  • e.g. “How can we make this story go viral in a particular community? Why aren’t people paying attention to this story?” is not going about it in a community-driven way. Outside looking in.
  • STAT is still defining who the audience is, free vs paywalled content

Ariel, The New Tropic, runs into problems reaching out to immigrant communities in Miami (e.g. Haitian, Dominican)

  • Got translators to host watch parties at community centers
  • Found translators in immigration court system
  • Where does your community already gather?
  • Start with the community and how the community accesses information
  • Digital barrier, internet penetration still a problem with underserved communities

What about mobile?

  • Learn about how different communities use internet to navigate their daily life

STAT published a video about tilapia skin being used to treat burns, audio in Brazilian Portuguese with English subtitles, went viral and did significantly better than later translation of English article or other content about Zika virus. Why?

  • Different interest across genders?
  • Theory: Compassion fatigue w/ stories that highlight problems instead of solutions
  • Tilapia story is not just a solution, but a quick fix

Doing a good job listening to people we’re reporting on, but not listening to our readers. How to learn who your audience is and continuing the conversation?

  • Callouts – thank you, glad you read it, what else would you like to read?

STAT wasn’t covering social disparities in health. Tried to start conversation online, but no one was talking. Didn’t build up trust and history of coverage before asking people to share intimate experiences about themselves.

  • Have to send the message that we’re here to help, not just here to create tragedy porn
  • If you don’t have the representation in the newsroom staff, how is anyone going to trust you?
  • Do more positive profile stories to gain trust

How to make more authentic callouts

  • Reach out to one or two people already in a relationship with and have them part of the conversation, have them start it in their own networks
  • Nobody wants to be the first person

How can newsrooms, starting from reporters and editors, not just push all the work onto one person (engagement editor) to push content to this or that group?

  • Boston Institute for Non-Profit Journalism started doing pop-up journalism, set up shop on the street to talk with people
  • Capacity, sometimes reporters go to events they’re not going to cover (e.g. every school board meeting), getting harder as newsrooms shrink
  • Fewer reporters trying to cover the same amount of content. One solution: crowdsourcing news budget. Here are the six high school football games coming up, you as the reader tell us which ones to cover, more engagement because readers got to choose

How many readers are actually active on Facebook, Twitter? Are we talking with them or at them, or just talking to ourselves?

  • Reporters afraid to engage online, fear of not seeming unbiased
  • Hope to push editors and reporters to break out of echo chamber online
  • Professional/personal facebook accounts for reporters to interact with readers?
  • Guest essays: ask commenters who are vocal, well-spoken to submit essays
  • Publish round-up of comments for further discussion

Strategies for reporters to share content to their social networks

  • Twitter vs Facebook divide, less willing to share own and colleagues’ stories on Facebook because it’s seen as a more personal platform for friends and family
  • Personalize the reporting, share behind-the-scenes info on how the story was created
  • Journalists are not as much figures in their community as they think they are
  • Seeing social media not just as a sharing platform, but a place to talk

Finding the line between personal and professional

  • Making a conscious decision about objectivity by making values explicit, statement of values with audience input

Publishing opposing viewpoints

  • Hard to find the line between destructive vs uncomfortable viewpoints

Experiences using callouts to source stories

  • STAT collaborated with ProPublica to gather letters sent to public officials and responses surrounding AHCA
  • EducationLab did an interesting questions shoutout every few months, pick a topic e.g. school finance, Works better in public radio than print.


  • Idea: ask newsletter writers to share most interesting response from a reader
  • For beat reporters: Here’s the things I’m working on, I’ll be working on them for a while, people can engage at different points