A public radio station in Los Angeles owned by Southern California Public Radio. They recently merged with LAist to expand their digital presence.
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
Between January and August 2020, KPCC/LAist received more than 4,000 questions from the community about coronavirus and answered all but a handful of them directly. They also treated the questions as informal audience research about how the pandemic was affecting Angelenos’ daily lives and used that to shape other editorial coverage, virtual events, and even the methods by which they delivered information to their community members. This is a window into how they managed the information influx.
Why this is important
When coronavirus reached the United States, KPCC had plenty of experience letting community questions guide their journalism. They first began answering community members’ questions in this way for their Human Voter Guide project in 2016. They got a crash course in doing it in an emergency moment during the California wildfires in 2019.
But the volume of questions they received after coronavirus began spreading in California stretched their newsroom capacity, forcing them to systematize their approach at a level they hadn’t before. The Membership Puzzle Project team chose to focus on their coronavirus response instead of previous uses of engagement technology platform Hearken because it offers a question:capacity ratio that can be relatable for much smaller newsrooms. The workflow they adopted is one that could be used by a newsroom of any size.
What they did
It took KPCC four years of inviting questions about the mechanics of voting via their Human Voter Guide project to reach 1,000 questions asked (all of which were answered). They launched their coronavirus question module in January, started receiving questions in significant numbers in mid-March, and hit the 1,000-question mark just four weeks later. They embedded the Hearken module in almost every coronavirus story and at the bottom of their FAQ.
In order to handle the influx of questions, they set up an “If this, then that” workflow (the link goes to their actual workflow template). At the peak of the pandemic, almost every reporter in the newsroom was working on coronavirus coverage in some way, so the engagement team created topical buckets (such as K-12 schools, testing, mental health, and higher education) and assigned reporters to topics based on their areas of expertise. Their template also accounts for language to use for questions they’ve already received and questions seeking medical advice.
They staggered work schedules for their seven-person engagement team so they could parcel out questions on the weekends and tightened up their coordination with a digital editor of sister site LAist, where the answers to questions appeared as a massive, continually-updated FAQ called the “No Panic Guide” (which morphed into this as time went on).
The volume of questions on a particular topic and the complexity of the answer informs whether KPCC also publishes a standalone, deeper piece on the topic, as it did with this step-by-step guide to getting unemployment benefits.
KPCC created a master database for the whole KPCC/LAist newsroom of all the questions received, the question askers’ contact information, the status of the question, and whether a reporter wants to speak to the question asker further. By doing this, they ensured that every question asker received a response and that the concerns of the community could be seen by the whole newsroom, influencing and guiding editorial coverage. The rest of the newsroom regularly searched the database for trends, story ideas, and sources.
As the number of questions coming in from outside California grew, they invited journalists in other parts of the country to help them answer questions (see form). The KPCC team grouped and anonymized questions to protect the privacy of question askers, sent them to the volunteer, and then replied to the question asker directly after receiving the answers back. They also offered their coronavirus stories for free republication by other local media organizations (those relationships were already in place because of a previous collaboration on the 2020 census).
They’ve also adapted this work for Spanish-speaking and non-digital audiences. They created a Monday through Saturday coronavirus news roundup, and they launched a dedicated Spanish line for their Groundsource service. They distributed a mailer with the most essential coronavirus information to neighborhoods with lower access to broadband internet.
As of August 7, 2020, KPCC had received 4,005 questions about coronavirus via Hearken and answered 3,961 of them. Almost a third of those questions came from outside California. They also received more than 200 questions via Groundsource. At two points they were receiving so many questions – 10 questions per minute – that they had to hire an additional part-time engagement producer to handle the volume.
They sent 12,670 physical mailers, 7,199 of which were in Spanish and included the number for their new Spanish-language Groundsource service, which they are just beginning to develop.
More than half of the people who asked a question via Hearken also opted in to receiving an email newsletter, making it KPCC/LAist’s single largest source of email address acquisition and therefore a critical part of its member acquisition strategy. More than 800 donations – nearly 40 percent of all funds raised in their most recent LAist drive – came from emails appeals, a big shift from traditional public radio pledge drives. KPCC/LAist also made sure to emphasize newsletter signups elsewhere on the site, which was experiencing record traffic as a result of their “No Panic Guide” FAQ and other coronavirus coverage (from March through May, traffic to LAist.com was 200 percent above normal).
The questions themselves helped them design more resonant editorial coverage as well. They became insights into how the pandemic was affecting their community members at various points in the pandemic, from the mother early on wondering if she should cancel her daughter’s wedding to nursing home residents being threatened with eviction for not following their facility’s coronavirus rules. An investigation into the unemployment crisis and accompanying virtual event prompted 750 new unemployment questions about unemployment, Hernandez writes.
What they learned
Since KPCC began receiving questions from the community via Hearken in 2017, the station has received more than 10,000 community questions and answered 5,100 of them. (The unanswered questions are mostly stories that would require enterprise reporting that KPCC is unable to do at this time). KPCC replies to those question askers explaining that.) From what they’ve learned that:
Journalism is about meeting information needs. “I’ve learned, journalism can be — and sometimes needs to be — the simple, straightforward answering of somebody’s question. It’s not just 3,000-word narratives or a sound-rich audio feature. It’s meeting information needs — in whatever form that needs to take,” KPCC intern Caitlin Hernandez wrote on Medium.
The questions are also insights that guide them to higher impact journalism. “When our audience comes to us with a question, they also provide insights into how the pandemic is affecting their daily lives in real time. This has guided KPCC-LAist’s reporting to some of our best performing virtual events and stories this year — and ever,” Hernandez wrote.
You don’t have to wait until you know the full answer. During moments of uncertainty and isolation, a partial answer right away is appreciated, even if it’s not the full answer.
This could be at least partially automated. The success of the “If this, then that” framework showed KPCC that they could remain human while being more systematic. Now they’re exploring how they can use machine learning to answer some of the simpler questions, freeing up staff time to focus on those that require a higher, more human touch. Although the pandemic will eventually cease to be the main news story, KPCC anticipates that this approach will serve them well during future prolonged breaking news, such as wildfires.
This kind of high-touch help requires mental health breaks. Spending all day helping community members experiencing grief, fear, financial loss, frustration, and anger takes its toll. KPCC has learned to stagger work days and provide mental health breaks, particularly for the engagement team, which has to engage at a deeper level with community members.
Key takeaways and cautionary notes
A simple“if this, then that” approach can help you greatly expand your scope. KPCC’s newsroom is much larger than most newsrooms practicing engaged journalism. Their engagement team of seven is the size of many local news startups! But their “If this, then that” approach is one that can help even a team of two or three efficiently meet their community’s needs.
Let the whole newsroom see the work. Their approach of making it easy for the whole newsroom to see the questions coming in and use them to design higher-impact editorial coverage and virtual events also helps the practice of engagement gain credibility and enthusiasm across the newsroom – a good lesson for larger newsrooms struggling to gain buy-in.
- KPCC, Medium: How KPCC embraced its role as LA’s help desk – and what we’ve learned along the way
- Better News, case study: How KPCC-LAist’s COVID-19 help desk is driving newsletter subscriptions — and memberships
- KPCC, template: Coronavirus Hearken Engagement Workflow