The Listening Post: Innovations and Lessons Learned

With its $35,000 award from the INNovation Fund, The Listening Post set out to use text messaging and community partnerships to engage and activate new audiences about the issues impacting the city of Macon, Georgia. Additionally they wanted to test how the model could scale to other cities and newsrooms.

Responses by Andrew Haeg have been edited and condensed by INN.

What was your organization trying to achieve?

Our goal was to use text messaging and community outreach tactics to inform and engage a substantial number of Maconites in a weekly conversation about emerging stories and issues, creating a civil, experience-based conversation about the emerging stories and issues facing the city.

What role did the INNovation Fund dollars play in the project?

This project would not have happened without the support of the INNovation fund.

What were the key successes of the project?

Audience Outcomes

In total, the project engaged 1,600 participants. We had several successful partnerships with community organizations, including Bike Macon, Soap Box Derby, Shalom Zones, Macon Housing Authority, Center for Collaborative Journalism, WMAZ-TV, and 880 Cities. Several stories developed out of insights from the community, and we received more than 1,000 community responses on a range of issues.

We published a website with the Listening Post feed embedded for the public.

Editorial Outcomes

Several stories came directly out of stories or tips shared by people as part of the Listening Post, including one about a mother teaching her other children to use guns because her child was shot and killed walking to the gas station.

Listening Post project lead, Burgess Brown appeared on GPB Macon several times to discuss responses from the public, and occasionally played audio gathered from respondents.

What were the critical success factors (ex: market types, internal capacity) that made this work?

In building the Listening Post, we set out to test and prove several hypotheses:

  1. That people would be interested in participating in a community news project that listens as much as it publishes
  2. That we could use outreach tactics to find a substantial (>1,000) number of these people
  3. That enough people would participate in a meaningful interaction of text messaging to make for a sustainable form of audience engagement
  4. That what they would share, when properly prompted, would actually inform and shape the news
  5. That people from different walks of life, from across the racial and economic divides in Macon, would feel comfortable stepping forward and participating
  6. That, once up and running, the project would be sustained as a valuable way to reach Maconites

Outreach Through Community Partnerships

On points 1-5, the Listening Post was a great success. Through a mix creative community partnerships with neighborhood groups like the Shalom Zones, the Soap Box Derby, Connect2Compete, Bike Macon, the Center for Collaborative Journalism, and others, we recruited a diverse network of more than 1,600 people who agreed to get text messages sent to their phone each week or so, with a mix of news and questions designed to draw them out on various and often difficult subjects.

We also used signs, flyers, posters and the handouts to promote the project (see below). But by far, the most effective tactics were partnerships. In one case, the Soap Box Derby, an annual event drawing families from all over Macon — from diverse racial and socioeconomic backgrounds — to watch as students and adults race homemade cars down a hill. The derby organizers wanted to use text messaging as a way to have people vote on the cars, and we thought, since the event was so community-spirited and inclusive. that we could also invite them into the Listening Post.,

Over the course of a few hours, more than 600 people texted in to vote on the cars, and the vast majority of them stuck around to begin participating in the Listening Post.

We also worked with the Macon Housing Authority, which was interested in surveying people in public housing to better understand how they were accessing the Internet, and to help connect them to low-cost internet solutions. The MHA handed out 1,000 flyers across a number of housing complexes, and more than 120 people responded to questions about how (if at all) they access the internet, and more than 80% reported that they had no broadband access at home. All of those who responded were then made part of the Listening Post.

Asking Better Questions

A network of community members to engage was the foundation, but in order to effectively engage and activate them, we spent a great deal of time iterating on different approaches to asking questions. We hit on a formula that involved (1) giving people a nugget of news, (2) asking a simple question they could answer in less than three seconds, and (3) once they’re invested in the conversation, asking more in-depth questions to dive deeper into their experiences.

These efforts to refine our approach to engagement led to numerous successful efforts to draw out a hidden vein of experience behind issues that were highly political, and in other contexts (ahem, comment sections) would lead to ad hominem, race-baiting, and the kind of tribal bloviating that makes so much of what passes for public discourse online uninviting at best, and toxic at worst.

We wanted to ask people about gun control, given a recent spate of shootings nationwide, but we wanted to ask it in a way that would get people to share stories and genuine points of view based on experience.

After much discussion, we settled on the approach you see below — a bit of news with a link, a simple opening question, and then some more in-depth queries.

Initially, we had phrased the fourth message simply — “Why or why not” — but when we sent out a test batch, we received only pithy, five to ten-word answers. After some discussion, we decided to add “What have you experienced that shapes your attitude towards guns?” And it was like we had flipped a switch. Suddenly people (more than 40 in all) began texting, at length, stories about growing up in hunting families, working in corrections, seeing young men die at their feet, and much more — with a level of earnestness and nuance that truly surprised us. And then we read one response that came in — in sentence fragments, lower case, relating a story about a son who was shot and killed.

The positive response we received from the community carried through on ensuing engagements, on topics including healthcare, a new minor league stadium being considered, and questions about the revitalization of Macon. It became clear that we had struck on a form of conversational, SMS-based engagement that was indeed sustainable, drew quality feedback from the community, inspired journalism, and drew in a diverse mix of people from around the community in a safe, civil space. As someone who has built another engagement platform, the Public Insight Network, and worked on many other engagement projects, this felt like a true breakthrough and one worth spreading.

Unfortunately, what had started as an enthusiastic relationship with GPB began to fade as leadership in Atlanta — while saying they supported our work with GPB Macon — effectively gave no support or oxygen to our outreach and engagement work. When the project leaders moved out of Macon in the early and late summer, respectively, they all but stopped engagement over the platform. So while the project is not continuing, I firmly believe it’s not because it wasn’t viable, or because it failed at some fundamental level as an engagement endeavor. It’s not continuing because of a failure to communicate, or grasp, or fully lay out, how crucial work like this is to making local journalism more community-first and therefore more tuned in to the needs of the people it serves.

What were the lessons learned?

Innovation never travels in a straight line; the paths of pioneering efforts can often appear meandering, thoroughly lost, even. And this is precisely why innovation is so hard to cultivate and sustain in most American newsrooms — even though it’s needed now more than ever.

The inertia of habit and the lack of resources and freedom to try things in new ways end up squelching efforts to reimagine local news organizations as truly community-centered institutions. Newsrooms need leaders with vision, who empower people further down in the organization to incorporate new routines into their work.

But having worked on the front lines of journalism innovation for more than 13 years, pioneering crowdsourcing and engagement efforts in newsrooms around the world — I have seen again and again that the most important product of innovation isn’t always a change in a specific organization’s workflow, but in inspiring innovators, and giving them an arena in which they can sharpen their instincts and vision such that they go on to influence and shape the industry as a whole.

The evaluators we used for this project, Yve Susskind and Michelle Ferrier of Journalism That Matters, used a unique developmental evaluation approach to monitoring and analyzing the efficacy of our work in Macon called Developmental Evaluation. In layman’s terms, it’s a process to evaluate not just the tangible outcomes of the project, but also to chronicle the journey of the people who are doing the work, to understand and capture their journey — and in doing so, to build a framework of sorts to guide the field in making the work of the profession as a whole more meaningful and effective.

And so, in reflecting on our work in Macon, I believe that the greatest long-term impact may not be felt in Macon — much as we would like it to be — but in the projects I and my collaborator Burgess Brown go on to start or influence.

Speaking personally: This project inspired me to double down on listening, witnessing firsthand, again and again as I did in Macon, the power of reaching out, of asking questions to draw out the deep and authentic feelings of a community. It has also inspired me to share the tactics and methods of the work we did in Macon with more than a dozen newsrooms in the past year. I regularly give guidance to newsrooms on community outreach tactics, on how best to incorporate texting into their work; on thinking holistically about community as something we need to cultivate.

This project inspired project lead Burgess Brown to pursue a graduate degree in urban ecology at the New School, and he is now being paid by Internews to consult and help develop the Listening Post Project.

So while this listening post is not actively being supported, I personally feel more confident in ever in spreading the vision of listening to newsrooms around the world. And I also feel like the value of listening is increasingly appreciated as a function of our work as journalists. I’ve personally heard from two newsroom leaders who are giving their reporters time to go out into communities and simply listen to people — without the expectation of turning in a story. I have some reason to believe that these developments are directly tied to the work we’ve done in Macon, and how it inspires others to follow suit even though it’s hard work.

Would you recommend this revenue- or audience-building approach to other news organizations?

Do you plan to do this project again?

In Macon, no. But the listening post concept will be replicated in other communities around the U.S. and around the world — perhaps not in quite the same way, but with at least some of the markings of the work we did in Macon (as laid out in the image below).

The Listening Post in Macon is part of the inspiration for the Listening Post Project, which launched with funding from Internews in 2017 as an international home for a framework for developing community-first media projects.

As mentioned above, I now routinely counsel with newsrooms on the importance of listening, and draw from the deep well of hands-on experience I gained while in Macon.

Would you recommend another news organization try such a project?

Absolutely. We need now, more than ever, to be expansive and imaginative in how we listen to communities. If we learned anything from the elections, from Brexit, and from other similar populist movements around the world, it’s that if people don’t feel listened to, their frustration morphs into fear and resentment. Local journalism, more than any other, needs to be highly attuned to the information needs of its community. As community servants, but also as businesses, the closer they can get to the people the serve, the more they can serve as a proxy for their whole community.

A few savvy media organizations understand that the business of media is no longer about a one-way transmission of information to the masses; it’s about engaging communities in ways that make them feel well served, even listened to. The Texas Tribune, in particular, is working hard at developing an engagement funnel to monitor and continuously improve the process by which a person goes from not knowing about the Tribune, to becoming aware, to becoming a reader, attending events, and one day — becoming a member and a more engaged citizen.

The Listening Post in Macon was meant to be an experiment in creating a broader opening to GPB Macon’s funnel, but without cooperation up and down the organization, such approaches are destined to fall well short of their potential. The reverse is also true, with buy-in from newsroom leadership, and vision for creating an engagement funnel, I believe newsrooms can become far more effective at building audience and community through community outreach and engagement.

What insight would you offer anyone using or thinking of trying a similar approach?

  1. Build listening into the job descriptions of every journalist and producer, and give them a budget to use tools and try things (holding events, buying pizzas for a town hall meeting, using tools like GroundSource and Hearken, etc.).
  2. Get the business side in the room at the very beginning. Often newsrooms’ advertising and underwriting offerings are very rigid, given their clients and the tastes of local businesses. But a resourceful ad sales or membership professional could help tie sponsorships, underwriting, and even advertising into the DNA of a project like this from the very beginning — giving it at least a chance to be sustained not just because it’s nice, but because it makes money.
  3. Be patient! Iteration is the key to determining the right mix and rhythm of engagement and listening for your community. The more you do it, the better you get, the better your relationship becomes with your community, the more information they share, and so on. But you won’t get the dynamics right the first, the second or the 20th time. It takes experimentation, and the willingness to let it develop.

Describe the market/community that you serve:

Macon, Georgia, is a city of 150,000 people in central Georgia. Macon is majority black and is heavily segregated by income and race. There are efforts underway to revitalize Macon, including tearing down old public housing projects, attracting more nightlife and restaurants to downtown Macon, and to expand Mercer University’s footprint in the city. It’s a city that has been losing population for decades and is trying to reverse that trend.