How Do We Listen to What Audience Wants, Turn Audience into Indy Journalism Advocates

Friday afternoon, May 15

Co-hosts:        Craig Aaron, FreePress

Iván Román, Communications Consultant, formerly NAHJ


Robert Rosenthal, Center for Investigative Reporting

Gail Ablow, Freelance Broadcast & Digital Journalist

Ricardo Sandoval-Palos, Fund for Investigative Journalism

Molly de Aguiar, Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation

Peggy Holman, Journalism That Matters

Note taker: Gail Ablow


Ivan: What tools do we use to get the community to value independent journalism enough to increase its influence and maximize impact?

Craig: How do we listen to what the audience wants? How do we turn the audience into independent journalism advocates?


  • Journalism that invests in community will invest in you.
  • How do you make community engagement sustainable?
  • Find out what the community values. Show them what you do, and do it better.


Craig: How do you get communities to become advocates for journalism?

Robert: It is symbiotic, creating a relationship and understanding of needs. From a journalist’s perspective, we are watchdogs. In terms of the community and making a difference in people’s lives and making a good investment, how do you get there?

Ivan: Social media.

Robert: A membership model alone won’t work. Non-profits need foundation funding. How do we use social media and technology to harvest from and nurture the community?

Craig: Not all communities have a big funder.

Robert: We are all competing for resources.

Ivan: We got our news for free forever. We have to agree to invest. We saw it in Ferguson. There were conversations on Facebook. People understand what bad journalism is. We need to get people who are jaded to re-think and value independent journalism.

Craig: Journalists need to go in with more humility. It is a two-way street. Often it stops at we’re here to do public service and we don’t ask what’s missing in the content and what they want the journalist to do. We need to open up that dialogue. We have a pilot project in New Jersey to organize community events and we need to do it through social media. And we need incentives.

Ricardo: The Fund for Investigative Journalism is in communities of color, helping the journalists who have done successful pieces and taken them to other communities so that they can show them how they did it. An example of what we try to do is with David Armstrong and the Georgia News Lab. We gave him guidance on how to tailor a proposal that comes from a project generally aimed at a community. We don’t fund general projects, but suggested they select a story for possible funding.  This is an example of how we have a pot of money and we work help grantees maximize funding and achieve the impact they’re after.

Robert: How do you message? Whatever issue, push it out to get people engaged?

Craig: Journalists need to do a better job. We forget to make the case – here’s what the reporting did.

Robert: We have a social scientist with us measuring the impact. The public is oblivious unless we focus on getting our story and message out about how we make a difference.

Ivan: I have dealt with the Latino community specifically. NAHJ had forums of 150 people. That’s a way of getting to the community.

Molly: Having a geographic community focuses it.

Ricardo: Susan Ferriss’ story, from the Center for Public Integrity, was about school cops and disparities in discipline. It got big play and had a big impact because it was amplified by a partnership with CIR and Reveal on radio. Then people in individual communities saw that she had national data and data for communities, and they wanted to replicate that in their own communities.

Robert: We are trying to do that too. How do we create the constellation? I agree with going to the community. How do we transfer that into revenue?

Craig: I might help put on an event. Tell people here’s what your $5 will do. Take the tools from advocacy and the online organizing world. I could help you figure it out. The tools are there.

Molly: You’ve done the hard work of interacting with the community and building relationships.

Craig: The audience values the information.

Peggy: News organizations can convene a community. The Seattle Times is using a Gates grant to cover education. Because the stories are coming from an appreciative point of view they are willing to do it. The issue of discipline in the Seattle schools has connected disparate people, encouraged them to build partnerships.

There is an example out of Cedar Rapids; a story about affordable housing. They got government and non-profits together and hammered out the agreements.

What is a service that helps a community thrive? How do I turn the editorial into the public square? What does the public square want to be in the digital age?

Ricardo: Michelle Martin is a personality and NPR is a brand. She did a town hall after Ferguson that was very successful. The audiences became more engaged. The engagement part is crucial.

Robert: Youth Speaks. Street poets. We use the form to get information from them. We want it to be a loop. It takes time and expense. We work with a theater group. We had a poet and a playwright on staff at CIR. Some people thought we were crazy. There was push back at first.

Peggy mentioned somewhere that they are rapping the news (Jasiri X in Pittsburgh).

Molly: Community engagement happens all through the process. Whether it is through plays or poetry, it is innovative and important.

Ivan: I see two questions – 1) how do we get the community involved in the discussion? 2) Where do you go from there? How do you increase the involvement?

Craig: you have to get buy in from a newsroom. It is collaborative.

Ivan: How do you grow it?

Craig: it might be identifying a core group and you keep the relationships going.

Peggy: St. Louis has done community engagement for a long time. They had contacts and connections and relationships.

Robert: Use local public media and collaborate.

Peggy: There is a Washington State Arts Commission example. They needed a strategic plan that the arts community would buy into. They did 17 gatherings across Washington State. In each market there was a local host. The issue was opportunities for the arts to thrive. The cost was minimal. On the payback side, they had a strategic plan and support from local artists. When they took a financial hit, the arts organizations rallied and prevented the state from cutting funding.

Ricardo: They harnessed the power of the network.

Ivan: I’m from Puerto Rico where the public values journalism. Independent journalism needs to do a better job of impacting people’s lives. We are drowned out by Fox News. The public needs a wider understanding.

Molly: My focus is relevance. People and voices are being excluded. They don’t see their reality reflected. For example, NPR is a very white audience.

Robert: We did the project, Rape in the Fields, with Frontline and Univision. We did that and we were looking for what kind of pickup it had. Spanish-language media was exploding. The reaction was incredible. We brought it to the community. But it was a one-off and a very expensive project.

Peggy: It sounds expensive, but fundable. There is a public out there. You need a campaign like “Intel inside.”

Robert: How do you parlay its importance into a nugget? We had a forum with one of the women who was a victim of rape. Afterward, she thanked us: “The worst thing in my life, became the best thing.”

Ricardo: Something must be learned from the organizing campaigns of the 1960s. Cesar Chavez went house to house to speak with people. He turned to the people with impact. My sister did that too, with public health in San Diego. You bring in a group of women who become the “promotoras.” They spread the word to the community. You embed the community leaders and expose them to the process, then they become the spokespeople.

Molly: I fundamentally believe journalism that invests in the community will be rewarded with investment from the community. They know when you [the journalists] are on their side. Community engagement takes time and effort and it’s a culture shift.

Ivan: Mainstream media outlets are scared of being advocates. Ethnic media is not afraid to advocate for social change.

Robert: We are aggressively pushing out through social media. It did lead to tips from whistle blowers.

Ivan: Connecting with people who care about that story in another place – how do you reach them. How do we take the next step?

Craig: NPR has a massive audience, a huge donor base, but no sustained engagement. What do we do to keep people engaged on an issue?

Robert: The question is when everybody is going 160 mph, how do you keep that momentum alive?

Ricardo: When you pose that question, will you help us? Help journalists do stories on climate change, on juvenile justice etc.

Ivan: Is there value of distinguishing between legacy and independent journalism?

Peggy: Or call it “public service” journalism.

Robert: We say that and funders get it.

Ivan: You can phrase it differently for different people. What Molly said earlier was key – engaging the community. Collaborations with legacy media complicate it. There might be an opening to advocate and increase relevance. But independent media the motivation is not profit. It includes hyper-locals serving the community.

Robert: Our goal is to serve the public interest. The mission is not profit.

Craig: The definition is fluid – how do we support all of the above.