What can I do TODAY, to bring readers and editors into a dialogue?

asks Christina, a dialogger-subscriber from Hamburg

We are often asked about how and where to get started in small, practical increments, from newsroom leadership. So where to start? And to what end? Why do we want to bring editors and readers into a dialogue in the first place?

If, like us, you understand that as the business models that support news evolve, so too must the relationship between a newsroom and the people it serves, then you are probably looking to prove this to both internal (i.e. your editors) and external audiences (i.e. your community of readers).

We recommend starting with a test project to prove out and start practicing the integration of listening and engaged journalism practices within your organization. We suggest starting with a well-defined editorial project, ideally with pre-defined launch and end dates, that can be treated as a proof-of-concept. This often begins with an editorial decision (what we call the editorial mindset) that is focused on what is going to be covered and how the story will be told.

It is also important to come up with an execution and resource plan, and a budget. This requires a business mindset, and you absolutely want your business staff involved. In this process the project leadership team, including the business folks, should be asking themselves questions like “Do I have enough resources to do what I think needs doing? And “Is the anticipated return or impact of this project worth the time, resources and money put into it?”

The next set of questions you need to be asking are “Who is this for?” and “Why should they care?” This is the community mindset. At the heart of dialogue-driven journalism is the understanding that we cannot know, and therefore meet, the information needs of the community we serve unless we ask questions, listen and then demonstrate we’re listening by including their input in our reporting. This is also where your communication and marketing plan come in, to ask and answer the question “how are we communicating our value to the intended audience?”

When people ask about things they can do to start integrating dialogue and community-powered journalism, they are often referring to the technologies and techniques that they can use, typically with as little up-front cost and resources, including the learning curve, as possible. The fact is that there is a very wide range of tools and platforms available for today’s digital publishers who wish to engage with their audiences, starting at near free ranging to platforms that cost tens of thousands of Euros up front and/or a significant percentage of your revenues down the line. 

Most proof-of-concept projects that we see start by using embedded polling tools, or asking and questions via Google forms. If organizations are fortunate enough to have funding, we have also seen successful projects launched on Hearken, Groundsource, and Reach (full disclosure, we have personally worked for or with all three).

Beyond technology,, the engagement mindset that we suggest starts by asking a different set of questions on a more macro level: What do we want our “customer journey” to be during and through this reporting project? What forms of interaction and opportunities for involvement do we want to offer our target audience? What can we give them that will be truly meaningful to them, and how will we know when we’ve done it, based on this first project?

Our final and fifth mindset is focused on growth. At the end of the day, everything we do is to serve our community and in return, recoup sufficient resources from the value we build to sustain our operations at optimal levels. 

As with any experiment, you have a theory that you would like to test and a control group to measure against. An example theorem could be: “If we ask the audience for questions and suggestions, and then get our journalists and editors to pick the best suggested questions and follow-through with high-quality reporting that our target audience engages in, then we can expect to get 10x more people to sign-up for a newsletter for a project of this size.” 

In this case, the control group would be the traditionally sourced and published projects of similar size and type, and the data previously collected on them. Easily quantifiable metrics – they can be found either through third-party applications or internal dashboards – are highly recommended in order to measure the project’s success. We include learning as success.

By focusing on growth, we can demonstrate the up-take of the new dialogue-driven content. We can measure growth in the number of identifiable individuals who sign up to receive a newsletter or the number of people who decide to donate as a result of interacting with the project, or in other terms. You will need a Customer Relations Management (CRM) system that enables you to track interactions with all these folks. The goal here is to build relationships with individuals who care about and support your work by following, sharing, and providing resources. 

Such a shift in the organization’s relationships with its stakeholders does not happen overnight. It typically requires several efforts before real internal cultural change occurs. That internal change is a precondition for connecting in a deeper way with your customers. Starting small and finite with a proof-of-concept project can be an excellent way to get started. 

For more on the five mindsets outlined here, as well as more practical guidance on deploying these techniques please refer to our forthcoming book “Community-Powered Journalism: A manual for sustainability and growth in independent news,” by Kevin Davis & Mark Lee Hunter. Published by the Stockholm School of Economics – Riga, 2020. Both Kevin & Mark are available to discuss and consult on how to apply these practices in your existing or start-up news organization. 

If you want to get in touch, just drop us a line at dialogger@tactile.news