At the Mega-Conference in Austin last week, I presented 10 things any newsroom can do to increase engagement. The most controversial idea for the audience? Inviting readers to attend your budget meeting and provide feedback on what goes on 1A.

When I was editor of Niagara Falls Gazette and a group of other daily and weekly newspapers in 2006, we did more than simply invite readers to our budget meetings. We offered them a chance to help guide our decision-making process.

I wrote a column inviting readers that you can read here that explains how it would all work.

In a nut shell, a reader would sit down with editors and review the news budget for that day’s content. We would explain to them the decisions we would have to make in the meeting and what all of the terminology meant. And then we went through each area. We explained what our goals were for skyboxes and the best options for the day. We talked about the rail, and then the city editor talked about each story.

Before we made any decisions we asked the reader what they thought should go on 1A and why. Sometimes we would debate with the reader. And then there were times when they would make us think about a story in a different way. For example, there was a feature story about the school district’s comic book contest where students were encouraged to draw their favorite comic superhero and the winner would win some neat prize. The city editor pretty much relegated the story to inside when talking about it but that day’s reader suggested we put it on the front page, do a cut out and have some fun with it. They said, just think about the reach that story has and how much parents would be interested. We took their advice. And it worked.

We used the program as an opportunity to introduce the community member to the staff. The reader loved the interaction, but reporters actually got tips from the conversations from time to time.

Once the budget meeting wrapped up, we took a photo of the reader and wrote a short piece we put in the paper on who they were and what stories they thought should go on 1A. If there was disagreement, we explained and justified it.

The big newsroom concern with this initiative was that we would let a reader dictate what would go on our front page. And 10 years later, after I spoke about this idea this week, I heard the same concern. We made it clear in our promotion and during our budget meeting that we would overrule if needed. It only happened a few times. And we vetted the reader before they came in. No politicians or folks with significant agendas.

There was some anxiety in the newsroom about the idea, but once folks saw that this was a great way to get one-on-one feedback from an actual reader, as well as tips, it was welcomed.

The one-on-one feedback is why this worked and why I still think it works. Big research projects, focus groups and reader advisory boards are all terrific things for news organizations to do. But I saw a different level of engagement occur when readers participated in news budget meetings. We were able to ask really direct questions about why they liked or disliked certain stories and placement. I could never get to that level in a larger group. This process created an important level of transparency.

With today’s digital tools, you could take this idea and really immerse yourself in feedback and create conversation about your coverage. While different than what we did, you could have someone Skype in to your newsroom and accomplish really the same goal. While not as personal, you could also use live blogging tools and ask readers to join and share feedback.

The point is, be transparent about how you make decisions and seek feedback. At the end of the day, the editor of a newspaper needs to make the final decisions, but you can’t do that in a vacuum. This kind of program helped me make even better decisions about what was best for readers.

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