When journalism responds to community needs and is created with community participation, that’s called engaged journalism. When done consistently, it progresses to true co-creation.
Although engaged journalism has become a mainstream practice, most organizations are still trying to make the leap from occasional projects to repeatable processes that build co-creation into the organizational culture. MPP emphasizes routines because – in a riff on the trope “what gets measured, gets done” – what becomes routine, becomes culture.
Engaged journalism is not inherently one-off projects, but this is what it looks like in most places right now. That’s why this section will focus on memberful routines: workflows that connect audience members to journalism and the people producing it on a consistent basis.
Memberful routines are a crucial part of your membership strategy. They contribute to the strength of a membership program by:
• Helping to grow the program, because engaged audience members are more likely to convert;
• Providing constant, informal feedback to the journalists that makes the journalism “stickier”; and
• Deepening the relationship a member has with the organization, making the member “stickier.”
Memberful routines also have financial value, either in revenue generated or in in-kind contributions. MPP has seen that these benefits extend to subscription and donation-based newsrooms who also establish memberful routines.
But if you want audience members to accept your invitations to participate, you have to create desirable opportunities to participate. These opportunities also need to be technically feasible and viable within existing resources. When all three needs are met, memberful routines – an innovation in how your journalism is produced – take root.
MPP’s research team won’t dig deeply into how to do memberful projects, aka engaged journalism projects, because you can find that elsewhere. Instead, it will guide you through the process of identifying opportunities for participation that are desirable, feasible, and viable – so that they can be powerful and repeatable – and then help you deconstruct them so that they can be routinized.
Newsrooms that offer flexible pathways to participation are well poised to succeed at this. They often have a range of needs and make explicit “asks,” with flexible approaches to how, when, and to what degree members participate. This actually deepens loyalty. Seen this way, participation becomes part of a loyalty and retention strategy, and is well worth measuring as rigorously as we do someone’s journey from site visitor subscriber to paying member. As researcher JP Gomes told MPP, “It’s possible that participation measured in hours, rather than dollars, correlates with how connected people feel to an organization.”
Memberful routines don’t have to be directly connected to the production of journalism. Their purpose might be to create community around your journalism, as DoR does with its live journalism shows in Romania, KPCC does in Los Angeles with UnheardLA, and Radio Ambulante does with its listening clubs. Creative participation opportunities like these can be surprising and liberating for both the news organization and its audience members.
If you don’t know where to start, ask your members to fill out a survey. Volunteering to be a part of audience research is one of the simplest forms of participation you can offer to members. It’s valuable on its own, but it might also be the first step on a path to greater participation. You always need people to help you out by taking a survey or sitting for an interview. If someone asks you, “What can I do other than give money?” the easiest answer is usually “Tell us what you think about this” or “Fill out this survey.”
If you’re new to the concept of engaged or memberful journalism, Gather’s introduction to the practice is a good place to start. Below are six places where you can find guides, case studies, and examples of engaged journalism projects.
• Gather, an online community for engaged journalism that includes case studies and lightning chats
• Better News, a collection of case studies and research from the American Press Institute
• The Engaged Journalism Accelerator, which includes case studies and guides
• Hearken’s collection of case studies and guides
Engagement at KPCC, where Southern California Public Radio documents their engaged journalism work
• The Participatory Journalism Playbook, a field guide to listening to and reporting with communities
If this section resonates with you, we encourage you to read Membership Puzzle Project’s August 2019 report “Making Journalism More Memberful” (English, Spanish) as well as MPP’s July 2021 report, “Building healthy member communities: Lessons from newsrooms around the world.”
When journalism responds to community needs and is created with community participation, that’s called engaged journalism. When done consistently, it progresses to true co-creation.
From analysis of audience research with hundreds of supporters of news organizations, the Membership Puzzle Project found six key motivations for participation – in other words, what they expect to give:
Understanding each motivation helps you identify good opportunities to participate. And good opportunities to participate are the ones that get acted on again and again, becoming routine.
- Curiosity and learning: Audience members who are motivated by their curiosity will participate in order to learn something new, whether that’s new knowledge or a new skill. City Bureau tapped into Chicagoans desire to learn about local government and hold politicians accountable with the creation of its Documenters program, which trains and pays Chicagoans to monitor local government by documenting public meetings. Since January 2019, Documenters has covered more than 950 public meetings in Chicago.
- Show a superpower: Audience members who are motivated by the opportunity to contribute their expertise have a useful skill that they see an opportunity to employ to make your work better. This can range from specialized academic knowledge to data scraping to lived experiences. When De Correspondent energy correspondent Jelmer Mommers began reporting on Big Oil, he asked employees to help him understand the industry. Dozens of employees reached out. The relationship building and reporting culminated with Mommers being handed a box of internal Royal Dutch Shell documents that proved Shell had been acknowledging fossil fuels’ role in climate change for decades, despite publicly casting doubt about the link. This cycle of sharing what they’re working on, asking for readers’ assistance, and utilizing readers’ assistance cuts across the entire newsroom and is an integral part of De Correspondent’s journalism.
- Voice: Audience members who are motivated by the opportunity to have a say have an opinion, experience, or question that they feel needs to be part of the conversation. An example of this is ProPublica’s Lost Mothers project, which investigated the dangers of childbirth in the U.S. “Do you know someone who died or nearly died in childbirth? Help us investigate,” the ProPublica team wrote. By recognizing grieving families’ desire for reform that could curb future preventable deaths during childbirth, ProPublica collected close to 5,000 stories of maternal harm. Crowdsourced investigative projects are at the heart of ProPublica’s investigative journalism, and they’ve developed a pitch template for evaluating each opportunity.
- Transparency: Audience members motivated by the opportunity to get the inside scoop want to understand how and why journalism is produced. British news cooperative the Bristol Cable taps this motivation every year with its annual general meeting, which member-owners attend in order to weigh in on strategic decisions. One year, member-owners helped the Bristol Cable draft an “ethical advertising charter” to help them evaluate whether future advertising inquiries meet the community’s ethical standards.
- Passion: Audience members motivated by the chance to show some love for your mission are proud of their affinity with your organization and want people to know about it. They might also be motivated by passionate opposition to something they see happening in the world, and welcome an opportunity to do something to change it. Zetland harnessed this motivation powerfully with its members-getting-members campaign. The campaign brought them 3,500 new members, bringing Zetland to 14,000 members – the point when it became financially sustainable. They’re replicating it again soon.
In 2019, Zetland faced a hard truth: they still weren’t profitable, and they were running out of time. Could their members help?
- Community: Audience members motivated by the chance to be a part of something bigger than themselves want to see and feel the community around your work. Radio Ambulante taps this motivation by giving encouragement and guidance to host “Listening Clubs” for their popular narrative storytelling podcast. Radio Ambulante’s listeners are spread across the U.S. and Latin America, and the listening clubs help the organization create a true community around their work by helping listeners meet each other.
By empowering their listeners to host listening clubs, Radio Ambulante extended the reach of its community.
If you do not yet know what motivates your audience members, you can’t design participation paths for them. You should do some audience research. Jump to “Conducting audience research.“
There are three stages to answering the question of which participation paths are right for you and your audience members.
- Finding the intersection point of your audience member motivations and your newsrooms’ needs.
- Choosing the stage in the reporting process when that will happen.
- Choosing what channels you’ll use to distribute the participation path
The intersection of audience member motivations and newsroom needs
Think about your audience members’ motivations as articulated above. Then consider your newsroom’s needs. The four newsroom needs Membership Puzzle Project hears most often are: to create high quality work, find audiences who will benefit from that work, identify additional ideas that are relevant to your mission, and to be sustainable financially.
The goal is to find the points at which audience members’ motivations and your needs intersect; and then to consider what it will take for your organization to enthusiastically, responsibly involve them.
You can reach this goal by asking: What does our audience know that we don’t? What do we not have the bandwidth to do that others would get value out of learning to do? If you already know your audience members’ motivations, use MPP’s cheatsheet to find the participation paths that leverage those motivations.
Membership Puzzle Project has identified 25 typical newsroom tasks that audience members might be motivated to do with you. Below, those jobs are sorted by motivation (although many of the examples could easily tie into more than one motivation). You can head to the original research to see specific examples of news organizations who have done each.
- I want to learn something new.
- Training and apprenticeship
- Data collection
- Data review
- I want to contribute my expertise.
- Code contributions
- Technical proofreading
- Language translation
- Contributors of needed professional skills
- I want to have a say and be heard
- As sources
- As sharers of lived experiences
- As question askers
- Product testers
- Providers of oral histories
- User advisory and community boards
- Contributors of original journalism
- Contributors of tips
- I want the inside scoop and to find out about your process
- Co-creators of ethics policies
- Voters in decisions
- I want to show some love because this topic/your public service mission matters
- Brand ambassadors
- Tracking and reporting trends
- Guides and hosts
- I want to be a part of something bigger
- Onboarders of new members
- Event programmers and volunteers
- Social media account takeovers
Maldita weeds out trolls trying to wreck their fact checking by asking respondents to upload proof of their credentials.
Stage of the reporting process
You can also spot opportunities for audience participation by identifying the stage of the reporting process when that participation could happen. Thinking about participation in this way can help you figure out how to design workflows and staffing to support the work.
(co-reporting, offering reporting tips or source assistance)
(proofreading a draft)
(helping distribute a work of journalism to the people who really need it)
The default for most news organizations is to involve audience members in the post-publication stage. But the first three stages are essential for true co-creation because it’s when they can meaningfully shape the work. MPP has found that it makes them more likely to help during the post-publication stage as well. People like to show off the things they help make possible.
ProPublica uses this engagement reporting pitch template with their journalists to assess opportunities for audience participation. Using a rigorous assessment like this during the planning phase of a story can help set you up for success at later stages.
If you’ve offered opportunities to participate in the past, the Membership Puzzle Project encourages you to look at what stages of the reporting process each of those occurred as an easy way to assess whether you’re meaningfully involving audience members. If most of your participation opportunities are happening in the post-publication stage, consider how you can begin to invite participation in earlier stages, when audience members can meaningfully shape the work.
Krautreporter is running three to five surveys at any point in time.
This might require involving different people in the planning process. For example, making audience participation the social media editor’s job alone will skew it heavily toward the post-publication distribution phase.
The channels available
Once you have identified what participation path you will offer and when in the reporting process it will happen, you have to figure out how you will invite that participation and via which channel.
The answer might be evident for your organization, but if it isn’t, below is a list of channels Membership Puzzle Project has seen news organizations invite participation. If you don’t know where to start, focus on channels your community already regularly uses – if you want people to participate, you have to meet them where they are.
|Not useful for
|Getting feedback about a specific topic; soliciting opinions
|Collecting open-ended feedback
|Planning, research and reporting
(via newsletter or social media channels)
|Soliciting a specific type of information
|Planning, research and reporting
|Gauging audience interest in one topic versus others
|Getting feedback that can’t be ranked
|Planning, research and reporting
|Gauging audience sentiment through open-ended conversation
|Getting feedback on a specific topic
|Planning, research and reporting, post-publication
|Extending the reach of the journalism; raising awareness about your organization
|Gathering feedback, developing new relationships
|Adding capacity to your newsrooms while deepening relationships with participants
|Rote work that isn’t educational for participants; training on skills you rarely need
|Planning, fact checking and editing
|Commenting and online conversation
|Helping participants “meet”; gauging audience sentiment on a specific topic
|Newsrooms that don’t have a healthy online community and/or moderation capacity
If Membership Puzzle Project’s approach does not suit your newsroom structure, consider the “Everyday Participation Toolkit” from The New Citizenship Project in Britain. Created to guide cooperatives through the process of identifying deeper participation opportunities for owners, The New Citizenship Project identifies opportunities by “mode” of participation: tell stories, gather data, share connections, contribute ideas, give time, learn skills, and crowdfund innovation.
The only way Correctiv could get data on who owned property in Hamburg was by asking readers to submit their own records.
Cultivating audience participation begins with offering bite-size opportunities to get them into the habit of engaging with your organization as more than consumers of your journalism.
It’s important to match your participation asks with audience members’ level of relationship with your organization and their disposable time. As their relationship deepens, their depth of participation might, too – and it might not. You need to offer flexible pathways to participate if you want to have a diverse group of participants.
Some news organizations meet this need by simply listing the many ways someone can participate on their site, and allowing audience members to choose, as The Local Europe does. They offer audience members an opportunity to take over The Local Europe’s Instagram account, contribute to a series on careers, or just tell someone about The Local Europe.
This method works, but participation opportunities become even more powerful when you can target the ask. As you get to know your most engaged audience members, you’ll develop an instinct for who to ask for what.
MPP refers to this progressive participation journey as a ladder which audience members climb as they participate more deeply in your work and establish a routine of doing so. The simplest forms of participation are on the bottom rung. Your ladder might be arranged by the amount of time, knowledge, effort, or experience required for participation at each rung.
Few newsrooms have applied this level of rigor to understanding how their audience members engage beyond financial support, so MPP turned to member-driven movements beyond news for ideas in a 2019 report.
Here’s one example from citizen science, which is a type of scientific research that is at least partially conducted by non-scientists. If citizen science only offered participation opportunities that trained scientists could do, the movement would quickly run out of steam. Instead they have a range, including simple data collection at “Level 1” that those with minimal scientific knowledge can do. People can progress to higher levels with training, or remain at Level 1.
The “participation ladder of citizen science contributions,” courtesy of University of London professor Muki Haklay
Say you work in a newsroom that is interested in harnessing their members’ expertise to improve their journalism. Your participation ladder might look something like this:
- Bottom rung: Asking audience members to complete a survey about their areas of expertise and what they’re most interested in (10 minutes)
- Middle rung: Asking audience members who have relevant experience to answer a more detailed survey or get on the phone with your reporter to offer insight on a particular topic (30 minutes)
- Top rung: Asking experts to proofread a story before publication, be a panelist in a webinar on the topic, join the comments section underneath the story to answer further questions, or co-report the story with the journalist (3+ hours)
A good way to get started building your own participation ladder is to look at the types of participation you already offer and categorize them by the level of commitment each requires. Assign each of your participation opportunities to rungs on the ladder, and start keeping track of how many and which of your audience members participate at each level. When you have a high commitment ask, you’ll know who to send it to, and when you want to get a larger number of participants, you can easily identify lower lift asks that would be suitable for getting people to get on your ladder.
Red/Acción in Argentina went through a similar process in 2020, ahead of developing software that will allow them to track audience members’ participation in a CRM. They identified 21 types of participation they offered, and categorized each as high, medium, or low difficulty. They’ll use these categorizations to ensure they’re regularly offering bite-size participation opportunities, as well as more in-depth ones.
In other words, it’s not about spreading participation across all your audience members equally, it’s about matching the significant participation asks with those who have shown the most enthusiasm by participating strongly already, and about serving small participation asks to those you’re trying to get on your participation ladder.
Once you have identified the right participation path for your audiences, you can begin the process of turning them into memberful routines – in other words, repeating it again and again until it becomes part of the typical workflow.
Moving from a participation project to a memberful routine involves these steps:
- Identify a participation path that corresponds with an audience’s motivation to participate and also meets your goals, producing value for your newsroom
- Design an MVP version of that path
- Try the MVP and gather data or insights
- Evaluate the success of the MVP with a retrospective
- Iterate on the participation path based on feedback from the retrospective
- Repeat steps 3, 4, and 5
You’ll also want to review the routine from time to time to ensure it still meets your goals.
MVPs don’t need to be perfect, and they should be built with the tools that you have. They are the most basic expression of your idea or product. When developing an MVP, focus on what you think are the most important features. Keep the list very tight and very focused. You can layer on additional features after you’ve tested your concept.
A simple MVP is also helpful because you can easily draw links between your actions and observed impacts. In other words, it’ll hopefully be easier for members to understand your MVP and easier for you to interpret how people react to it.
Taking an MVP approach to audience participation is valuable for testing your assumptions about how audience members want to participate before committing significant resources to the project, particularly if a full-fledged iteration of the participation path would require new tools or new roles. The research team offers additional advice on designing an MVP in the product mindset section. (Jump to “Adopting a product mindset”)
When MPP uses the word “iteration,” we are referring to a “try.” Here’s an example: if you’re experimenting with inviting members to organize and lead events for other members, as La Silla Vacia does, each member-organized event, or a set number of member-organized events in a series, would be an iteration or try. You would conduct a retrospective after each try.
When Radio Ambulante decided to launch listening clubs to help build a stronger community around its podcast, it started with 20 pilots led by staff members. They used those pilots to work out the kinks and develop best practices. Once they had a reasonably good understanding of the essential components for a successful listening club, they created a guide to hosting one that they distributed to listeners around the world, empowering them to host their own.
By empowering their listeners to host listening clubs, Radio Ambulante extended the reach of its community.
The evaluation stage is as critical as the design stage. A hearty retrospective after the launch of each iteration is what will help you assess what went well, what didn’t but is likely to go well if you make some changes, and what isn’t working and shouldn’t be repeated. (Jump to “Adopting a product mindset” for best practices and advice on conducting a retrospective.)
It’s helpful at this stage to return to your original outcomes, and assess whether the project accomplished that for you – in other words, what did you think it would be good for, and what it actually was good for. A retrospective might also help you identify who should be responsible for executing on the routine.
At the retrospective stage, you might decide not to continue this particular participation project because not enough things worked. That’s fine. If that is the conclusion, you should spend some time identifying what factors contributed to the outcome, and look for clues about what to try next. But if the project does many of the things for your organization that you wanted it to do, it is a high-value project and one worth developing into a routine. Over time, your organization will gain an understanding of what types of participation are viable for your organization and the audiences you serve.
The true test of whether the participation path has developed into a memberful routine is whether this participation path holds amid unpredictable or high-intensity news events. What happens to audience participation in a breaking news moment is what separates truly memberful newsrooms from those who see audience engagement as primarily a distribution strategy.
Cultivating audience participation begins with a request, from your newsroom to your readers. Callouts for participation might appear in newsletters, on social media, embedded within articles, as standalone articles, or presented as conversation topics at events. You should choose where they appear based on where you have your most engaged audience.
Inviting audience members to share their questions and contribute experiences are the most accessible ways for newsrooms to begin asking for audience participation. But it takes practice to figure out how to write a prompt that invites actionable responses.
An example of a strong callout is KQED’s Bay Curious, which is centered on an evergreen invitation to readers: “What do you wonder about the Bay Area, its culture or people that you want Bay Curious to investigate?”
Hearken, which has brought the idea of audience curiosity as a foundation for stronger journalism into newsrooms around the world, shared with MPP what makes this a good audience prompt.
The prompt is explicit about wanting questions from the audience rather than ideas or comments. Starting with the phrase “what do you wonder…” or “what questions do you have about…” makes it clear to your audience that you are soliciting questions. And this makes it more likely that your audience members will come to you from a place of curiosity and openness rather than one of assertion or personal agenda.
The prompt sets parameters. In this case, the parameters are geographic – the questions submitted need to be about the Bay Area. Parameters are important because if your prompt is too broad, audience members might draw a blank. They can also inspire ideas or point curiosity in a certain direction.
It establishes the question’s purpose. Your prompt should communicate what you plan to do with your audience’s questions. This prompt clearly establishes that these questions are going to KQED reporters and are meant to prompt investigations.
Examples of prompts that are too broad include: What are you curious about? What do you wonder about? What should we cover?
Your coverage strategy should also set the constraints on participation, not the other way around – unless you genuinely want to crowdsource your editorial agenda and are prepared to let audience members guide that process. A “what should we cover” prompt opens up the possibility of audience members submitting a demand that you then have to deny. It also invites responses based on people’s personal causes.
They used an “if this, then that” framework to handle the influx of questions they received.
Hearken recommends beta testing your prompt by testing the language with people around the newsroom (or better yet, with friends, family or strangers).
If you’re asking people to contribute information, rather than questions, here is an instructive example from ProPublica, who asked readers to help them track hate speech in closed Facebook groups. What stands out about this example from ProPublica is the specificity of their request: what kind of information they need, why they need help collecting it, and who is best positioned to provide it.
Even if the replies you receive are too vague to use as story ideas or explicit data points, they can still be useful. Organizing all the questions you receive by topic (i.e. public transit, education, racial justice) can give you a sense of which topic areas audience members are most enthusiastic about contributing to, which can point you to opportunities for training and events.
Another important thing to keep in mind is that you don’t have to ask all your audience members all the time. Going to a group of a dozen audience members knowledgeable about the topic at hand will yield better results than asking your entire readership – and will be more manageable on a small team. Many newsrooms have started building databases of their members’ areas of expertise so that they can easily reach them by email when they need their insights.
“A group of members is not a community,” Coral founder Andrew Losowsky has said. “A community is a group of people who know each other exists.”
You can have membership without having a community – but a community will make your membership stronger.
A vibrant online community can provide steady, informal feedback on what audience members care about and add value to your membership program. It can also make the process of inviting audience collaboration easier. But online communities are also resource intensive, and without proper moderation, they can quickly become toxic.
An online community might be realistic for your newsroom if you can put strict community guidelines in place and enforce them, which might lessen the moderation burden once community norms are set. It can also work if you have someone whose role it is already to build rapport with your community members online. The research team has newsrooms successfully build online communities on Facebook, Slack, Discourse, and in commenting sections.
Página/12 leveraged an intellectually engaged readership to build a membership program built on comments.
At Black Ballad in the U.K., a member-only Slack community is at the heart of the membership experience. This case study shares how they manage that group on a three-person team and how they use the group to bring members into newsroom decision-making.
For Black Ballad, the community is the end goal - and that's evident in how they think about everything.
A strong community might eventually maintain itself. Página/12 in Argentina launched an online writing group about a year into the COVID-19 pandemic to give their members a way to come together without in-person events. Although the writing group was open to any members, Página/12 was particularly focused on providing an enriching experience for members outside the capital of Buenos Aires, who didn’t get in-person opportunities even before the pandemic.
The writing club members became friends, forming a WhatsApp group to chat between sessions. As the pandemic eased, members in the same city even began meeting up in person. In the beginning, Página/12 was the glue holding the writing group together, but eventually it became just the platform where they met. Meanwhile, the writing club became an effective advertising tool for the sense of belonging that Soci@s, their membership program, offers.
Check out Coral’s guides, which includes a step-by-step process to defining and building your community, case studies, and advice on moderation. To explore tools for building an online community, jump to “Building our membership tech stack.“
For more, we recommend:
- “Community Knowledge Share” from Wall Street Journal’s Annemarie Dooling and community building consultant Danielle Maveal, which offers practical advice on running and moderating online communities
- “How to Handle a Crowd: The Art of Creating Healthy and Dynamic Online Communities” from Anika Gupta (a study of eight vibrant online communities beyond journalism, and what makes them work; you can get a sneak peek via this presentation)
Memberful routines produce real value for the organization and for the audience member, but they don’t inherently add value to every journalism endeavor and are not always realistic.
They require significant time from your team. This is a labor-intensive way of working. You should be intentional about deciding where to invest your memberful efforts, and you should have a plan for assessing afterward whether it was worthwhile so it can guide future decisions. In “What to ask yourself before you start a crowdsourcing project?” ProPublica shares their internal assessment questions. KPCC in the U.S. tags all the stories in the CMS that originated with an audience members’ question and studies how they perform after publication to gauge which stories gain the most traction.
They can require more time than your audience members are willing or able to give. Audience participation is time-expensive, and you might find that the participation opportunity you design asks for too much. This doesn’t mean you need to kill the effort completely, but you might need to scale it back, as El Tímpano in the U.S. did when participants told them a community advisory board was more of a commitment than they could make. El Tímpano switched to quarterly public editorial meetings instead.
They require project management skills and support for the work at all levels of the organization. This way of working requires cross-functional collaboration within the organization and with outside collaborators. Many news organizations are still structured to support ferrying a story from conception to distribution, which doesn’t lend itself well to this process. An invested reporter can easily bring memberful routines to their beat (see MPP’s research into what it means to have members of a beat), but bringing memberful routines to the whole organization requires investment at all levels.
They require soft skills that many journalists receive no training in. The skills needed to cover breaking news are very different than the skills needed to lead a room or understand what motivates your community members to participate. DoR in Romania brought in experts to train their staff as facilitators, moderators, mediators, and listeners as they transitioned to membership.
Readers can ask for too much. Sometimes readers overstep. They misunderstand where their involvement is acceptable. They begin to see your reporters as their personal problem solvers. They begin to expect all the reporting to confirm their opinions. Your organization should have a policy and training on how to handle these situations.
Engaging deeply with audience members can take an emotional toll. Managers should pay attention to whether engaging so deeply with audience members is taking an emotional toll on their staff. KPCC in Los Angeles received thousands of questions from Angelenos during the peak of the coronavirus pandemic, many of them on tough topics such as death and job losses. KPCC staggered engagement producers’ work schedules to give them a break between emotionally intensive shifts answering questions.
Some participation opportunities could come into conflict with union guidelines. If you work in a unionized newsroom, there are clear guidelines for what volunteers are allowed to do. Generally speaking, you cannot bring in free labor to do something that a staff member would normally do. Always check with your newsroom’s union representative before asking for audience participation in a new way.
Memberful routines require new ways of keeping track of your members. Organizations such as De Correspondent, Maldita, Página/12, Krautreporter, and the Bristol Cable keep track of their members’ areas of expertise so that they can tap that at any time. Each has developed its own system – Página/12 built its own member database that is layered on top of Coral’s open-source commenting platform, while the Bristol Cable is developing new software to support this need. It’s important to have a way to keep track of participation so that you can consistently recognize audience members’ contributions.
Invitations to participate might be at odds with cultural norms, or what is considered safe. As mentioned previously, much of MPP’s advice is often based on the premise that it is safe for a news organization to be transparent about what it is working on and who is on staff, and that audience members want to be identified as members. That is not always the case. Malaysiakini has had to figure out how to balance loyal readers’ desire for engagement with their fear of being identified as members, for example. They have allowed anonymous commenting so that people can feel safe posting in Kini Community.
Given the government’s attacks, Malaysiakini understood people might be nervous about being “members” – but knew they wanted to engage.
Memberful ways of working require that newsrooms be intentional as they assess where they need to draw the line between transparency and co-creation, and safeguarding the integrity of their work, the safety of their team members, and the safety and well-being of participants. There will be stories you cover that are not right for this way of working, and that is okay. Examples might be a sensitive whistleblower story or breaking news coverage of a mass shooting.
Newsrooms have mitigated the risks of involving audience members in reporting in a variety of ways, including requiring audience members to sign memorandums of understanding and agreeing to embargos, as the Bureau Local does. Reveal at the Center for Investigative Reporting had a two-part verification process for their “Hate Sleuths’ ‘ (volunteers who helped them find and track hate speech online) that included filling out an application on Screendoor and seeing a copy of their personal ID.
It is possible to involve audience members in a slice of an investigative story without revealing the entire story. You might pose a callout inviting audience members to share an experience with discrimination without revealing that you are investigating a whistleblower tip on the topic. It is always an option to limit audience participation to the post-publication stage.
If you are inviting people to engage with your organization, your organization needs to be a safe place for them. That means having facilitators and/or moderators present for conversations that could be hostile and always having clear community guidelines and a plan for enforcing them.
Black Ballad in Britain converses with its members in a member-only Slack group. This limits the reach of the conversations and who can be in them, but it also ensures that their community – mostly Black British women – does not experience the kind of abuse they experience elsewhere on the internet.
If you begin to systematically track audience participation information and share it across your organization, it’s important to be transparent about that. A simple way to handle this is to ask in your audience participation communications, “Would you be open to being contacted about this again in the future? It might be someone else from my organization, but we won’t share this information beyond our staff.” You should log in your internal system that you are the point of contact so that other staff members can check with you before reaching out to the same person.
Digital security is also paramount. This is not the research team’s area of expertise. MPP directs you to the Global Investigative Journalism Network’s resource list, as well as the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Digital Safety Kit.
Your audience members are not your volunteers, they are your collaborators. Their contributions are not free labor, they are a give/get bargain. The opportunities to participate should be mutually beneficial, and collaborators should receive meaningful acknowledgment of their support. Without this, you risk leaving audience members feeling used and even more distrustful of your organization than they would if you invited no participation at all.
In addition to centering audience member motivations in your planning, asking a few simple questions at the beginning of your work with audience members can go a long way toward setting up a mutually beneficial relationship:
- What can we help you do?
- How can we get you what you need? (such as software, training, or physical space to work; CORRECTIV in Germany gives its fact checkers a company email address for doing the work.)
- How can we be respectful of your time?
- How do you want to be recognized?
Some organizations offer a free membership to audience members who contribute in this way or give them bylines on the final piece. City Bureau, CORRECTIV, and the Bureau Local offer not just opportunities to participate, but training as well, which opens up the opportunity to those who don’t yet have the skills required but are eager to learn them. CORRECTIV pays its fact checkers €50 to €70 for each article they fact check (as of August 2019) and City Bureau pays its Documenters $16 an hour to document public meetings (and offers a kill fee if that meeting is canceled).
The University of Wisconsin’s guide to less-extractive reporting posits 12 rules for reporters engaging with community members. From “know what you and your outlet bring to the table (for better or worse)” to “address sources’ information gaps appropriately,” these rules are easily adapted for co-creation beyond interviews.