Good Listeners: Behind a New Journalism Fund to Drive Community Engagement

photo:  Shahril KHMD/shutterstock

photo:  Shahril KHMD/shutterstock

When they're not struggling with layoffs or fretting about how the latest Facebook algorithm will affect web traffic, here's a question that keeps many editors up at night: How can we produce more relevant and trusted news coverage for the diverse audiences we serve?

Fortunately, help is on the way, thanks to the Community Listening and Engagement Fund (CLEF).

Backed by the News Integrity Initiative, the Democracy Fund, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and the Lenfest Institute, the fund subsidizes news outlets' partnerships with Hearken and GroundSource, two services that help newsrooms produce more relevant, differentiated, and engaging content.

The key to this work, according to the fund, is an ability to "listen to and share power with the public before and during reporting." The Chicago-based Hearken’s technology is optimized for "web-based interaction," while the Macon, Georgia-based GroundSource’s technology is optimized for mobile messaging and voice (SMS, Facebook Messenger, etc).

The fund puts the average cost at $8,500 per service; grants will subsidize between 25 to 75 percent of the cost of either or both services for year one. The fund will give preference to nonprofit journalistic entities, community-based for-profit media outlets, international newsrooms with a U.S.-based fiscal sponsor, and first-time partners of either Hearken or GroundSource.

Applications will be reviewed on a rolling basis, but the deadline for the first cohort is 5 p.m. EST on February 16, 2018. The fund will announce the recipients in March.

Causes for Optimism

The arrival of the fund couldn't have come at a better time.

News outlets of all sizes, and small ones in particular, need to improve reader engagement in order to survive in an ever-consolidating industry. The fact that the fund provides these outlets with access to "proven models, methods and workflows for listening to and working with the public" is clearly a good thing. Animated by indications that Hearken and GroundSource have cracked the "community engagement" code, the fund wants outlets to get in on the action.

I'm also encouraged by the roster of funders behind the effort. The Lenfest Institute is emerging as an increasingly important funder in the journalism space, and with some deep pockets, thanks to additional pledges from its founder, H.F. Lenfest, and more than $21 million in new donations from other donors. A matching campaign hopes to raise that figure above $100 million.

The Democracy Fund, meanwhile, was created by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, and has been stepping up efforts in the past year to strengthen U.S. journalism. The Knight Foundation's track record speaks for itself.

The fund's architects hope to grow the CLEF over time to include a robust suite of services and tools that newsrooms can use to connect with their communities. Given the grantmaking firepower here, I suspect their plans will come to fruition.

Navigating Gray Area

I'm also intrigued as to how the fund's work will play out in the practical sense, especially with regard to that important, yet somewhat fuzzy goal of engagement.

Funders frequently debate the definition and utility of the word in the arts philanthropy space. What does meaningful audience engagement actually look like? How can we cultivate it? How can we measure it? And so on.

These questions give executive directors at arts organizations fits. But that's child's play compared to what transpired over the past three years in the media and technology landscape. As you may recall, the proliferation of "bad" engagement metastasized across thousands, if not millions, of social media accounts, affected a presidential election, and in the process, compelled funders to allocate millions to combat fake news, stem viral sensationalism, and close the "global trust deficit." 

But it gets even more complicated.

In mid-January, Facebook—aka the world's most influential news provider— announced it was significantly overhauling its News Feed, saying it would prioritize what users' friends and families share while de-emphasizing content from publishers and brands. The changes are intended to maximize the amount of content with "meaningful interaction" that people consume on Facebook.

This means users may see less news from trusted providers and presumably more engaging content from family members like Uncle George, who still believes that Barack Obama was born in Kenya. The tweak has the potential to further solidify readers' preconceptions and deny them access to opposing points of view and "real" news.

In other words, rather than rein in the proliferation of fake news, Facebook's pivot toward more "meaningful interaction" may actually have the opposite effect.

Defining "Engagement"

It's within this context that we should assess the Community Listening and Engagement Fund and ask the $64,000 question: How does the fund address the "engagement" issue?

For an answer, we turn to an insightful blog post by Hearken CEO Jennifer Brandel titled "What We Mean When We Talk About Engagement." After noting that "the industry can’t quite put its finger on what 'engagement' truly means," Brandel defines the term accordingly:

Engagement happens when members of the public are responsive to newsrooms, and newsrooms are in turn responsive to members of the public.

Brendel goes on to liken engagement to a feedback loop between newsrooms and the public where "journalists need to show their community members that their input matters."

If her definition sounds familiar, it's because we've seen this idea of engagement of an ongoing trust-building conversation in the work of the News Integrity Initiative (NII). 

Administered by the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism and supported by a slew of funders including (ironically enough) Facebook and (not coincidentally) the Democracy Fund and the Knight Foundation, the initiative is supporting activities that "build enduring trust and mutual respect between newsrooms and the public through sustained listening, collaboration and transparency."

All that being said, Brendel's definition may still come across as somewhat ambiguous. If so, well, it comes with the territory. She readily admits that "measuring meaningful engagement can be hard to do. It’s not always as clear-cut as a number, data analytics or price point."

Nonetheless, the sheer act of defining engagement is valuable.

(In related news, the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, the Washington Post,and Philadelphia Media Network created a new technology partnership designed to accelerate digital innovation at the Philadelphia Inquirer and other metropolitan newspapers around the country.)