Digital transformation

What does it mean to be a newsroom that listens?

The phone on your desk rings.

An email pops in to your inbox (several times a minute).

Someone comes to the newsroom to talk.

In each of these cases, a human is reaching out to you, and you have a choice. You can listen, really listen, or you can pray that the interruption will go away quickly because you have a ton of stuff to do. Important stuff.

The newsroom of interruptions requires powerful time management skills, to be sure. But sometimes, the most important thing you can do is listen. What we learn tells us about our community, which informs our coverage. When we rush from story to story, or we are buffeted from planning meeting to planning meeting, we’re missing valuable opportunities to listen.

Listening means getting past our defensiveness. Readers often call to complain, either about something you did or someone who has wronged them, and it’s tough to avoid reacting and dismissing. But we can learn so much more by softening our approach, taking a deep breath and listening.

In some cases, all a reader needs is someone to listen. In other cases, maybe we write a story or a blog post. Maybe we take a photo or video that means the world to the reader (and by extension, every person that reader knows).

And now we have even more tools to listen. We have comments on social media and our websites, questions that should never go unanswered.

We have analytics platforms that tell us with numbers how many people were interested in a story, how interested they were, whether they were new to our site or return often. These numbers may not feel as personal as someone speaking to you, but if you listen, they have a story to tell you, too.

If you’re missing any of these opportunities to listen, here are a few ways to ensure a day doesn’t go by without giving you an opportunity to listen. And once this becomes a part of your day, you’ll find that your storytelling is richer, the topics you cover resonate more with your readers, and your website, your social media accounts and your newspaper reflect your community with more depth than ever before.

  1. Check analytics first thing, including mobile-specific analytics. Look for patterns that tell you what this audience wants because we know it’s hungry for news. Create reports that give you info at a glance. Talk about analytics and coverage at your morning meeting. How can you respond to what you’re learning from metrics?
  2. Check your social accounts throughout the day, and be sure you experiment with Snapchat or some form of social that helps you understand a different potential audience. Be sure to engage on these accounts every day. And ensure you have people in the newsroom who are responding to comments every day. Think about a rotation so someone is always responsible for checking for engagement.
  3. Look to social for potential story ideas. What is your audience talking about? What are your friends talking about? Get beyond thinking of stories as just a reaction to stuff that happens. I was at the Columbus Dispatch recently, and they have a short stand-up meeting in the middle of the newsroom every day in which anyone can stop by and suggest interesting story ideas. People from other departments are welcome, too.
  4. Invite people to participate in your editorial board or form a reader advisory board. Find out how GateHouse editors have reached out to underserved communities or simply listened to their readers.
  5. Respond promptly. Whether it’s a phone message, an email or a suggestion from a reader advisory board, ensure you get back to your readers. Maybe you won’t be able to give them the answers they want, but you can treat them with respect and explain your answer. For example, when someone asked me to keep their name out of the DUIs we published, I explained how important consistency is in our treatment of our community.

Maybe you rock the personal part of listening, but you’re new to the lessons of metrics. Or maybe you prefer analytics to the emotion of a person standing in front of you. Be sure to challenge yourself to use all of the tools available to listen. Your readers will thank you.

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