Newsroom experts

StarNews is charting a new community engagement path in 2017

StarNews staff: Front row, from left, Gareth McGrath, Diane Fuhrer, Rosemary Tiller, Cammie Bellamy, Elizabeth Montgomery, Ashley Morris and Adam Wagner. Second row, from left, Dan Spears, Gary Greene, Tammy Miller, Stacie Greene Hidek, Pam Sander, Sherry Jones, Si Cantwell, Cheryl Whitaker and Ken Blevins. Back row, from left, John Staton, Jeff Hidek, Tim Buckland, Julian March, Ben Steelman, Hunter Ingram, Alex Riley and Jim Ware. Not pictured: Matt Born (man behind the camera), Mike Spencer, Eric Detweiler, Tim Hower, Merton Vance, Hannah Delacourt, Paul Stephen, Fran Norton, Chris McGaughey.
StarNews staff

Pam Sander, executive editor of the StarNews in Wilmington, North Carolina, recently announced an initiative the StarNews is undertaking in 2017 that aims to focus on community issues by hosting a series of discussions with community members.

Through the Community Conversations, Sander’s explained how she plans to engage the Wilmington community in discussions of meaningful local topics and not only help her newsroom gain better insight into its readers, but to help her readers gain better insight into one another.

GateHouse Newsroom:  Are you going into the series with a specific set of questions you’re hoping to answer or waiting to see what unfolds organically?

Pam Sander: Community Conversations is intended to fall along the spectrum — from an informal coffee gathering to a formal forum. Talking to people doesn’t have to be complicated and exhaustive.

I wanted to come up with something that would be a bit more inclusive from event to event than a reader advisory board is, but not always worth a huge auditorium and panel of experts.

Regardless of topic and turnout, it should be fruitful for ideas and listening to readers and nonreaders tell us what matters to them.

GHN: How are you advertising the events to members of the community who might not read or follow the StarNews?

PS: We are entering the second phase of a large branding campaign that should reach outside our regular audience. Newspapers tend to preach to the choir. Through digital billboards and targeted, boosted social campaigns, we are aiming beyond the established chorus.

GHN:  What fresh or unique ways are you planning to cover the conversations?

PS: It’s not really unique, but … We had the Community Conversation about black issues in the community, and have continued to push the conversation forward. We’ve developed some great email back and forths, and written stories from ideas shared there and are getting more feedback from those.

We are putting together a smaller, less formal reader board born of the more active members of the previous three reader boards. We’ll use them as a check-in of sorts for all the ideas their groups shared. Did we come through? Are things still outstanding?

Then in late May we’re planning a more formal forum in Wilmington’s Northside, 20-block area downtown that’s getting a major economic boost with much-needed development. Unfortunately, many people who live in the historic, yet lower-income section believe gentrification is happening. So it’s ripe for discussion.

I’m also growing a virtual Community Conversations with Pam’s Reader Log. Over the past six months, as readers have emailed me to offer compliments and complaints about the paper, I’ve signed many on to be part of ongoing conversations via email. The agreement with them is — if they don’t care about the topic I’m throwing out or just don’t have time to contribute, that’s OK. Not surprisingly, once onboard, many regularly share their thoughts unsolicited.

GHN: How are you measuring the success of the events?

PS: This is a bit tough to measure, since 10 people at one Conversation gathering may have the same value as 100 or 200 at another. The measuring will really be in the follow-up — is our coverage impacted by those events? Thus far, that’s a resounding yes.

GHN: What suggestions would you give to other newsrooms that are looking to develop their own community engagement series?

PS: For many newsrooms, the word “forums” stirs up headaches, because of the logistics to produce them or they’re perceived as a lot of work. Then the turnout may not equal the work to make it happen. For Community Conversations, the expectation is much lower — whether 10 people or 100s show up, you’re excited because they’re all there to talk and share ideas and concerns about something important to them.

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