Public Herald Update: A Traveling Newsroom, A Growing Following

If there is a way to expand the Public Herald’s audience, Melissa Troutman and Joshua Pribanic are taking on the road to find out.

As editors of the Public Herald, Troutman and Pribanic are betting their success on a documentary film based on an 18-month investigation into the negative impacts of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in Pennsylvania and how those impacts were handled by regulators and the oil industry.

“Triple Divide” will be screened in more than 40 cities across the country, particularly in states where the method of fracking is either being proposed or is in its early stages. Each screening is followed by a panel discussion with local groups, elected officials, media and the public.

According to Troutman, the film already proved to be an effective way to enter a community and ignite a conversation about the impacts of fracking, which is becoming a hot environmental and health topic beyond the affected states.

But the tour goes beyond showing up at a town to screen a documentary and talk about the issue. Like other news organizations that seek to engage their audience through public events, the Public Herald wants to answer the question: How do you engage an audience and sustain their attention and interest enough to support the journalism that you do as a long-term investment?

“People have very little interaction with journalists outside of reading their works,” Troutman says, “so putting investigations in a documentary format and hosting screenings creates more intimate relationships between people and the news they choose.”

Troutman and Pribanic tested interest in the topic, and the film, with a few screenings in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Maryland and New York. When they began this small experiment in March 2013, they had an audience of about 70 paying members, Troutman says.

Within a year of screening Triple Divide, that audience had grown to 400 members, all spread across several states. A light bulb lit up and the set their eyes on a bigger prize because, after all, if this could work on a small scale then why not try it on a bigger scale.

“Ultimately, we want an international audience,” says Troutman. “Why not? We are online journalism in a global society.”

Driving members up

Of the more than 40 screenings planned in the coming months, Troutman says they anticipate to see their audience grow by about 100 to 280 new paying members.

She estimates this would generate some $3,000 to $8,400 additional dollars which could sustain the Public Herald’s #fileroom transparency project for more than one year.

“If we can replicate what we’ve already done in states within our geographic reach, farther beyond the Marcellus Shale’s more immediate impacts, then I think it’s safe to say that engaging audiences with visual and documentary investigations is a practice Public Herald will continue, and one that every newsroom should consider to increase readership and sustainability,” Troutman says.

Public Herald isn’t sitting on a mountain of cash, so, to execute their grander plans it sought funding from the INNovation Fund. It was one of eight first-round winners this spring.

In addition to the $35,000 from the INNovation Fund, Troutman sought the help of Tesla to travel some 10,000 miles using one of its fully electric vehicles. It is essentially a two-person tour with zero greenhouse gas emissions.

Challenges ahead

Growing a paid membership (and presumably engaged) audience is not an aspiration of the Public Herald alone.

There are many other ideas and efforts out there trying to achieve similar goals. Yet the dollars to back up those ideas are few and far in between. Troutman says their Triple Divide screening tour would have been difficult to execute without the INNovation Fund grant.

Money aside, such an experiment could have bigger implications beyond the Public Herald’s financials. It could set a precedent for other organizations to experiment with the concept and try it on their own, but not without its challenges.

Challenge number one: How do you assess audience engagement before and after each screening?

Here’s some ideas from Troutman and Pribanic:

  • use a small paper questionnaire to gauge familiarity with the Public Herald’s work and the issue in general before the screening, then another after the screening;
  • use incentive, such as a free 48-hour streaming access to Triple Divide online, for attendees to complete the survey;
  • or create an online survey and encourage attendees to visit the website, complete the survey with a free video streaming incentive.

Troutman says the challenge to these ideas is to do it in a way so it does not cut into the Public Herald’s DVD donations, which also drive new memberships.

Challenge number two: To hire or not to hire an event coordinator.

Troutman says planning a national tour is no easy feat, and her and Pribanic questioned whether hiring an event coordinator would be a financially prudent decision. Because she knows the content better and has the experience coordinating events, Troutman says she has taken the lead on the tour logistics. A key provision: if scheduling becomes too much of a challenge or burden, Troutman says they will consider hiring a part-time coordinator.

Challenge number three: How do you choose between the states that have had fracking for years and those in early stages?

By no small measure, fracking has had its share of news especially in states like Pennsylvania, Ohio and New York where it has gone on for years and grown to a larger scale.

This raised the question whether the Triple Divide tour should invest its time and money on states where there’s already sufficient news coverage—and possibly a far more engaged audience—or go where the general public lacks education on fracking because it has not grown to such a large scale.

For the time being, Troutman says they will focus their efforts on states where large-scale fracking is not currently going on with the exception of a few states like West Virginia and a stop in Ohio.

Visit the map of the tour here.