MANSFIELD – Richland Source will soon take its audience engagement efforts to the next level.
Richland Source was one of 34 newsrooms across the country to be approved for a grant from the Community Listening and Engagement Fund (CLEF) to fund Hearken, a tool that encourages public-powered journalism in newsrooms by facilitating communication with their audiences before stories are published.
“This is about us being better listeners,” said Richland Source publisher Jay Allred. “Hearken is a tool that is recognized in the journalism world as being among the best tools to enhance the newsroom’s ability to ask the right questions and get the right answers from as many people as possible.”
Earlier this year, The Cuny Graduate School of Journalism’s News Integrity Initiate, Democracy Fund, Lenfest Institute and Knight Foundation joined to create the CLEF with a total investment of $650,000. The intention was to support newsrooms interested in building a stronger connection with readers.
"Our readers are a crucial part of what we do," said managing editor Larry Phillips. "This will help us to better engage with them in a unique way."
Richland Source received $4,250, covering 50 percent of Hearken’s cost. The remaining funds must be provided by the news organization.
“My hope is that we raise the rest of the money locally, whether it be through sponsorships or other means,” Allred said. “But whether we do or not, the company is committed to this project because we want to be the best at listening to and connecting with our audience.”
Through Hearken, the Richland Source staff will have the ability to loop readers into the reporting process. The platform allows readers to ask questions, vote on their favorite story ideas and further shape stories before publication.
This compares with a traditional newsroom, where reporters only engage with readers via comments after stories publish.
“I think if we could tap into the interests and passions and curiosities of our readers in our community earlier in the process, we could do a lot better job of serving those people,” said Ashland Source reporter Courtney McNaull.
“When I was in journalism school, I was taught our first loyalty is to citizens and readers, not to sources, businesses or anyone else. I think this is a really good way to get back to that and build that trust, especially in an era when people are less likely to trust the media.”
Ashland Source and Crawford Source will also have access to the Hearken subscription, which includes engagement counseling and an Engagement Management System that will make tracking engagement efforts a more seamless process.
“Hearken will take listening to our readers to the next level. This technology is in front of you all the time, so you can talk to us all the time,” said Richland Source reporter Brittany Schock.
Schock led the Richland Source’s first Listening Post project in September 2017. A listening post collected stories from area mothers while stationed at the news organization’s Community Baby Shower, an event held after Schock's series on infant mortality, "Healing Hope" was recognized as the number one Solutions Journalism story by the Solutions Journalism Network in 2016.
“The one regret I have about the listening post is that it came at the end of the story process. I had already written my articles, we had already planned this event, and the listening post was at this pinnacle event,” Schock said. “When really, the listening needs to happen at the beginning of the process – before you even start your project – because it points you in the direction you need to go.”
Last month, Schock learned even more about listening to readers when she attended the American Press Institute Summit, "Creating a culture of listening: Using dialogue to bridge divides" in Nashville, Tennessee.
“One of the big takeaways I had from the summit is, the community is our boss. We should be listening to them as far as the direction of our content and what we’re writing about,” she said. “This is something we should have been doing all along, and I’m excited for Hearken to make that easier and a lot more accessible for more people to actually talk to us about what they really want.”
Schock believes Hearken will be especially helpful in solutions journalism projects, stories with a focus on how problems are being solved. Schock and fellow reporter Tracy Geibel will use the platform for their series “Rising from Rust,” which addresses how Mansfield and other Rust Belt cities are overcoming dying manufacturing legacies and moving forward.
“When we’re talking about rebuilding or revitalizing a community, we clearly want to know, ‘What are the problems here?’” Schock said.
McNaull also sees plenty of opportunities to engage with readers through Hearken.
“One of the first and easiest ways to do it will be to incorporate it into some of the stories and things we’re already doing, but in the future, I can see us launching projects from this, possibly even a podcast.”
She mentioned Curious City, a Chicago-based podcast that listens to readers and investigates accordingly, answering their audience’s questions through the podcast.
Since joining the team in December 2017, McNaull has noticed how the newsroom already takes time to listen to readers.
“With the Richland Source, the Ashland Source, the Crawford Source and Knox Pages, our niche is that we have that community connection, that we listen to and think about our community first, and (Hearken) is just another good way to do that.”
Hearken will officially launch through Richland Source by May 1.