Case Study

Lessons learned from community listening during a pandemic

In a follow-up to this Ecosystems Toolkit, the author Fiona Morgan shares lessons from how she and others undertook aspects of news ecosystem assessments during the pandemic, and how this listening was itself an investment in communities.


In late March 2020, I reached out to someone from a neighborhood organization in Houston to ask if we could set up a time to talk. I had just begun a community listening effort with the American Journalism Project and, having shelved my plans to spend time in Houston and talk to people where they live, I was pressing on with a more digital approach to understand the local news and information needs of this massively diverse city. The community leader wrote back with a polite but firm message: I can’t talk right now, I’m busy sewing masks around the clock. 

It was a completely understandable response. The intensity of worry, the uncharted territory of stay-at-home orders and quarantine procedures, and the burden of what we didn’t know overshadowed everything else. Making masks could save lives, and saving lives was (is) clearly the most important thing. I felt humbled. What sense did it make to take up people’s time to talk about something that seemed so abstract as local news, at a moment like this?

Yet in that moment, reliable local information had never been more critical to people’s survival. Local news sites began seeing a massive increase in traffic, as people began to search for information to meet their concrete needs. Journalism became a necessity, not a luxury, and community and place-based foundations and other kinds of community-based organizations found themselves in a unique position to respond to those needs. 

As the pandemic progressed and life became a little more manageable, I was able to connect with community leaders in Houston and several other cities. I came away with three big lessons from them and some practical tips about learning to listen from a distance from other leaders in the field like Sarah Alvarez of Outlier Media, Jesse Hardman of Listening Post Collective, and Max Resnik, who led the media team for Cortico’s Local Voices Network. These lessons aren’t entirely new, but the circumstances of the pandemic have driven them home; and as we think about life after the pandemic, they’re more important than ever. 

Central to all of these lessons is the understanding that research itself can be an investment in a community. The smartest investment is the one that offers material support to grow local capacity — which we’ve seen across the country as organizations use engaged journalism practices and delve into local news ecosystem assessments.

Lesson 1: Provide value to, rather than extract time or resources from, people who are in need.

When journalist Sarah Alvarez founded Outlier Media in Detroit in 2016, her goal was to provide information that would address the needs of the largest potential audience in Detroit: people who are economically vulnerable. She wanted to find out what people needed to know, but knew the community was weary of being asked. 

“Detroit had high levels of engagement fatigue,” Alvarez said. “There was always a new community initiative, not led by the community, but led by people who wanted to help the community. They were always trying to have an engagement process with community members. And people were really tired of it because there was nothing ever that happened. I think it’s taxing to say again and again and again, ‘What are your needs?’ and to have those not be attended to.

“If you’re working in any community where there’s a significant number of needs, I think you really have to think about assessing those needs in a way that doesn’t take a lot from the people who are already in need,” Alvarez said. “It’s about creating value rather than extracting value. And that’s not just in our journalism, but in the way that we determine what it is we’re going to cover.”

She started by looking for data that was already available about unmet basic needs: starting with localized data from 211, a three-digit helpline coordinated by the United Way that connects people with locally curated information about social services, disaster assistance and other vital needs. The Health Communication Research Laboratory at Washington University collects data on 211 requests from many (though not all) communities across the country and offers a free searchable dashboard of frequently updated data at 211Counts.org

TIP: Look at existing data on local information and resource needs, such as 211Counts.org.

“We’ve found that resource gaps are an incredibly good proxy for information gaps, which are a very good proxy for accountability gaps,” Alvarez said. “So it’s a good idea to examine, where are the resources that people are trying to access and can’t?”

Housing and utilities ranked highest among topics people asked for help with. She considered how she as a journalist might bridge those gaps. What she landed on was radically different from the news story as we’ve known it: one-on-one text messaging that uses public records and journalistic know-how to provide information on housing and utilities. It was information as a service, designed to meet the information gap head-on. 

Alvarez bought lists of tens of thousands of phone numbers of low-income Detroit residents and reached out to them with an offer, rather than an ask: Do you need information? Outlier’s automated information service allows people to quickly and easily look up information about the ownership, foreclosure risk, and rental inspection status of any home in the city. The service also provides an opportunity to connect directly to a journalist dedicated to answering additional questions all without having to connect to the internet or leave a text message conversation.

In the process of answering follow-up questions and watching the usage patterns of the SMS service, Alvarez has also uncovered patterns across the city. Investigating those patterns uncovered accountability gaps — problems in the system — which she reported and turned into original news stories (of the more conventional type). In that way, Outlier’s information service is also an ongoing assessment of information needs and resource gaps and an ongoing tipline of sorts. 

Since the pandemic began, Outlier’s team has broadened the scope of information needs they respond to, which now includes food, unemployment, and health information. With their text messaging system in place, they’ve been able to communicate directly with well over 10,000 people during the pandemic in English, Spanish, and Arabic, including more than 200 people directly each day in the pandemic’s first few months.

Most questions come up again and again, so the team can easily build the most common questions and answers into the service. New questions can be clues to accountability gaps. When the Outlier team is looking into a new information or accountability gap, they look to see if that gap is potentially widespread, if the harm it causes is severe, or if the gap is only happening locally, which can be a sign of a dysfunction that doesn’t happen or has already been addressed in other places. “Usually if something’s really messed up in this place and it’s not messed up in other places, why is it going wrong here? There’s a systemic breakdown, not just an information breakdown,” Alvarez said. For instance, a number of people texted Outlier saying their online applications for unemployment assistance were being flagged for fraud, all noting the same error notification. Alvarez investigated and found the problem was the algorithm the state used to process claims. 

Outlier has also taken on information assessments in Newark and Atlantic City, New Jersey, in cooperation with a coalition that includes the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University. They use the same approach, beginning with existing data, then purchasing phone numbers and using their text-messaging platform to ask people about their material needs; participants are paid to take the survey.

TIP: Be prepared to answer questions, not just ask them. 

There are many ways to provide valuable information in the course of assessing the information people need. You can host an online community forum (on Zoom or a similar platform), like the digital town halls that the Charlotte Journalism Collaborative hosted earlier last year, asking people in advance what information they need to stay safe and healthy. You can provide answers to frequently asked questions on a website or flyer. 

TIP: Pay people for their time.

Providing an incentive to participate is common practice in research. Offering to pay for people’s time acknowledges that their time has value. 

Putting a little bit of cash into people’s pockets at this moment is a direct way to invest in, rather than extract from, the people you aim to help. In my work with AJP, I pay people $40 to participate in two-hour Zoom focus groups, offering a choice of common apps like CashApp or Venmo, or a gift card to a specific online retailer. (I’ll sometimes put a check in the mail for older participants who feel most comfortable with that payment method.) 

Other people in the field offer gift cards to chain stores or restaurants, or — when possible — food. Resnik said the Local Voices Network used to offer “snack packs” for participants to pick up and dig into during conversation. “Some news organizations are bound by their internal ethics to not pay folks in any way for participating in the creation of journalism. But for city organizations or civic organizations that regularly convene community conversations,  budgeting for convenings and for food is expected, especially when meetings happen when people would normally be having dinner.

“I think the important thing is to be transparent,” Resnik said. “When you’re making a decision about whether you’re able to compensate people for their time, tell people why. If people aren’t able to participate without food or other compensation for their time and expertise, make space for that conversation. If there are community members who are not showing up in your meetings and who you want to be reaching out to, find ways to facilitate their participation.”

Lesson 2: Develop local leadership and infrastructure to address information needs by hiring local people and working with local partners to do the work.

The Listening Post Collective partners with individuals, community-based organizations, and foundations to build news and information platforms that serve local communities.  

To do this, the LPC engages in a community-based approach to assessing information needs across the country, from the Jersey Shore to Omaha to Fresno. Whether a Listening Post project is driven by a local news organization, a local funder, or some other type of organization, local people are at the heart of the work.

For its current project in California’s Inland Empire, LPC put out a call inviting locals to apply to work on the research. “We hired a couple of really great younger researchers that are especially connected in the community,” LPC founder Jesse Hardman said. Connections to the communities you want to work with matter more than people with typical research connections.

TIP: Hire local residents to do the work with you.

You’re not necessarily looking for people with typical research credentials. Look for people who are deeply connected, especially to the communities you most want to hear from. “One of the people we hired is good at interviewing,” Hardman said. “They’re very active on things like Instagram. Especially in areas that don’t have a ton of media operating, people are really congregating on Facebook and Instagram and places like that. [Our researcher] is very adept at communicating in those spaces.”

Another thing to consider is whether this person can develop skills and leadership that position them to carry the work forward when the initial research phase is over. “You’re not just hiring somebody to help you do research,” Hardman said, “you’re investing in someone who might have an idea and lead a project themselves.”

TIP: Work with local partner organizations. Hire them and pay them when you can. 

Community partnerships are absolutely essential to understanding information needs, especially during the pandemic. The best partners are grassroots, community-based organizations, the very ones people are turning to for material help and vital information. These groups know what community needs exist, and they often know best how to communicate with residents. Walking them through your local information needs research plans, and explaining your goal of sharing what you learn in the process can help build trust with local organizations and even some partnerships. Ultimately, they can help you reach out to people you might not otherwise be able to reach. 

In California’s Inland Empire region, Hardman’s interviews with locals led him to partner organizations. “Some of the institutions that were having an impact in this pretty big area were local nonprofits, specifically ones focused on the environment,” he said. “I saw they were also becoming big information sharers. They were aggregating news and sharing news because they had people’s attention.” 

Partnership can mean a lot of different things, and most of the time, it just means a friendly, informal relationship. Community-based organizations are often willing to make an effort to help spread the word about your project or make connections — again, if they believe your work supports their mission or benefits the people they exist to serve. Whether you’re asking for a small favor or hiring an organization to perform a service, be sensitive to their capacity.  

In Houston, I connected with a nonprofit called Boat People SOS that serves the Vietnamese immigrant community. I started with a phone call with the executive director, interviewing her and explaining the purpose and scope of our work. I reached out again to ask if I could hire her organization to recruit and provide language interpretation for a focus group in Vietnamese. At that moment, she and her staff were overwhelmed trying to help community members access COVID-related assistance. So the American Journalism Project team pushed back our timeline to accommodate her needs. A few weeks later, she and her colleagues worked with us on the focus group and the conversation yielded amazing insights we would never otherwise have learned.  

TIP: Allow people to connect with each other in the process.

The experience of participation can be valuable in itself. When people have a chance to network with others in their community and learn from one another, they can develop stronger and more resilient links to information and resources they need. Focus group participants often tell us that they learned a lot from the conversation, including the names of people and community efforts they didn’t know existed.   

Resnik agrees that the experience of engagement can be at least as valuable as the information it surfaces. “The real value for these community conversations is a space for people to build trust with each other, to share resources with each other, and to develop that sense of community connection,” he said. 

Lesson 3: Make participation easy and accessible 

A paradox of online engagement is that it can be less accessible to some folks while being more accessible to others. People who lack internet access or access to devices can find it hard to join a virtual conversation. On the other hand, those who might not be willing or able to attend an in-person event due to transportation, child care or other reasons may find it much easier to get on Zoom. Include time to offer tech support to those who are not comfortable with the platform. 

TIP: Make digital gatherings inclusive.

Local Voices Network had been hosting in-person live conversations at libraries and other public spaces. Very early on in the pandemic, they switched to an entirely digital approach for their conversations and facilitator training. Resnik published a detailed guide to community engagement on Zoom, including how to use its breakout rooms. More recently, he published a follow-up guide on how to make Zoom conversations more accessible to people who speak different languages or use American Sign Language. 

Resnik said he’s been struck by how much more accessible digital engagement can be than traditional in-person discussions. “There are so many folks who would have been excluded from events beforehand, who now have a space to chime in and become part of dialogue,” he said. When the pandemic is over, he said he hopes newsrooms continue to “create space for community members who would never have felt welcome or invited because of linguistic barriers because of a lack of ASL interpretation or closed captioning.”

Hiring language and ASL interpreters costs money. But if you can include these elements in your budget, you can open up the conversation in ways that Zoom’s (paid account) features make it remarkably easy to incorporate multiple languages and other forms of accessibility that might be more complex to execute in physical space. Plus, they’re easier to record.

Even if you’re not using any interpretation or special features, consider ways to keep conversation groups small on Zoom. My ideal number for a focus group is between five and eight participants, otherwise it’s hard to ensure everyone has a chance to be heard. 

TIP: Offer many different ways into the conversation. 

Zoom isn’t the only way to connect during quarantine. Facebook groups and community listservs are as strong as ever. There may be other platforms that are specific to certain communities, such as WhatsApp (popular among immigrant communities), and Reddit (which has active local forums in some places). Interviews and support from local liaisons can help uncover the specific digital places people gather.

Text messaging platforms such as GroundSource and Reach (a project of EdNC) can help you connect with large numbers of people by SMS. If your number of engagements is small enough, you could use a simpler digital service like Google Voice to set up outgoing voicemail, receive voicemail messages, and send and receive text messages. 

And there are still opportunities for in-person engagement when done with care. Consider setting up a COVID-safe tent outside a grocery store or coordinating with a food pantry to distribute flyers along with the food. Just as digital outreach used to boost turnout to in-person events, targeted and careful in-person outreach can boost digital participation, especially if that participation doesn’t require much time, effort, or advanced tech. 

Some things, like travel and in-person events, will have to wait until the pandemic is over. But community listening doesn’t. 

Learn more at an upcoming event:

Resources:

2-1-1 Counts: A continuously updated repository of data from the United Way’s 2-1-1 information service, hosted by Washington University in St. Louis’s Health Communication Research Laboratory. 2-1-1 is a local service, and not all local agencies participate in 2-1-1 counts.

Local Voices Network:

The Listening Post Collective: The Listening Post Collective Playbook

The Lenfest Institute:

Engaged Journalism, Newmark J-School at CUNY: Engaged Journalism and Covid-19: Ideas and Resources for Serving a Community During a Pandemic

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