The Ben Franklin Project is, among other things, an opportunity to re-imagine the newsgathering process.
Part of the re-imagining is a focus on crowdsourcing. By placing the audience — the news consumer — at the front of the process newsrooms will have a clearer understanding of what stories are of interest to the readership. Throughout the first iteration of the Ben Franklin Project both newsrooms tested varied approaches to interact with the audience and engage the crowd. Montgomery Media held a town hall meeting to start and then moved to Facebook and social media. The News-Herald in Willoughby, Ohio had success utilizing social media tools but quickly learned that they key was asking targeted questions to the audience.
As the newsrooms participating in Ben Franklin 2.0 have learned, general requests to the audience about “what should we cover?” don’t work. As many editors have voiced during collaboration calls, the response to that question has been less than positive if it received a response at all.
In the collaborative spirit of the Ben Franklin Project newsrooms have posted their story budgets on this blog and have updated and edited (and in some cases abandoned) plans for some crowdsourced stories.
The common challenge newsrooms have faced is the initial engagement of the audience. Editors have expressed some difficulty in jump starting the interaction because we have not invested the time in the past.
And since we’re looking to share our experiences so others can benefit — the exact reason editors are collaborating on this process — here are a few of the techniques that have worked and lessons learned:
— “It’s easier to get a response by being as specific as possible on each information request and making it as easy as possible to contact the reporter,” says Tom Skoch, editor of The Morning Journal. Pointed asks or specific questions have provided better results for our newsrooms participating in the BFP.
— Tricia Ambrose, editor of The News-Herald (who hosted the first Ben Franklin effort) has provided details of her staff’s success in utilizing individual social media accounts rather than the newsroom’s general account when asking for audience input. Reporters and staffers have relationships with specific members of the audience who may be more likely to respond directly to that individual’s request rather than the newsroom’s wholesale approach. Also, have staffers pass on requests tied to areas outside their beat. Just because they cover city hall doesn’t mean that one of their contacts doesn’t have an interest in sports.
— Managing expectations and adjusting the approach to reaching the audience is important. New Haven Register (New Haven, CT) managing editor Mark Brackenbury writes the “response has been steady, though not overwhelming,” and notes that one of the newsroom’s story ideas “washed out.” The staff asked the audience to share their favorite travel vacation spots for a travel feature story and they “got no responses,” Brackenbury wrote. “We may have been asking too much – details, photos, etc.” The Register has received strong response to Facebook postings and email blasts, on stories about economic recovery, Facebook and social media use and a feature on what age is appropriate for a child to have a cell phone. Response to a story on government waste was, as Brackenbury explained, “slow to start, although it has picked up and we are continuing to seek reader input.” The Register is continuing the crowdsourcing by posting initial drafts of stories and asking readers to check them out and offer more feedback and input. A first draft of the cell phone story is here.
— Both Lisa Lewis and Jordan Fenster, editors of the Troy Record (Troy, NY) and Register-Citizen (Torrington, CT) respectively, have used some “retro” techniques to engage the audience. The Record provided flyers to downtown businesses who may be interested in discussing the newly installed downtown parking meters. This was designed to target business owners as well as downtown shoppers. Fenster’s team — aside from using online tools for surveys on downtown development and parking — have employed a similar guerrilla crowdsourcing campaign by leaving behind letters and business cards.
— Sites including the Daily Freeman (Kingston, NY) and Daily Times (Delaware County, PA) have held live chats using free tools like Cover It Live to engage readers in discussions about story budgets and issues beyond the Ben Franklin Project.