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Engaged Journalism Is A Revenue Strategy. Here’s Why

a woman in a yellow shirt and jeans talks into a microphone held on a long boom pole by a woman in a black skirt and striped shirt standing 6 feet away. both of them wear face masks
Early childhood reporter Mariana Dale conducts an interview; this beat was redesigned to center community information needs and habits.
(Chava Sanchez
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Today we are announcing the launch of a new program aimed at making the practice of engaged journalism in local public media newsrooms integral to the nonprofit business model.

The program will bring together a cohort of public radio stations — KPCC/LAist, WBUR, WBEZ, and MPR — to link engaged journalism efforts in the newsroom to membership and revenue. We will focus on tangible outcomes and share our learnings as we go.

Engaged journalism is a practice that emphasizes:

  • Closing the gap between communities and the journalists who aim to serve them
  • Serving those who may not already consume your journalism
  • Thinking differently about story selection, framing, and distribution
  • Shaping stories with community members

Put simply, engaged journalism is about removing barriers for participation and creating a welcoming space so that more people can have access to the information they need to be their own best advocates.
KPCC/LAist is a national leader in this practice, and we have invested deeply in integrating this approach throughout our journalism — not just siloing it in specialty teams.

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Why? Because we believe that to earn the trust, and support, of the communities we cover we need to fundamentally practice journalism differently.

Examples of this work include:

  • A research process known as human-centered design that seeks to understand people’s information needs and habits before crafting coverage plans. For example, for our series on the high rate of Black infant mortality this research established a goal of reaching Black women of childbearing age with information that could lead to better outcomes, and that changed how we distributed the story in significant ways.
  • Answering thousands of coronavirus-related questions directly and tracking themes in those questions to inform broader coverage.
  • Projects that put cameras in the hands of parents and caregivers to lift up their experiences and reflect communities often invisible in mainstream coverage.

For this work, we have twice earned awards from the Online News Association.

A woman stands on a counter and looks at four large pieces of paper taped to a wall while 3 people sit in chairs and listen to her
From left: Sarah Pineda, Tran Ha, David Rodriguez, Ashley Alvarado, and Kristen Muller (not pictured) analyze human-centered design interviews, looking for patterns and opportunities.
(Chava Sanchez/LAist)

We believe it is now vital for public media to show the way forward in a more comprehensive and sustainable way. The yearlong program, made possible by a generous grant from the Knight Foundation, will establish a road map not only for the stations in this first cohort but for other news organizations in the future.

It’s important to note that engagement-oriented journalism is not new. It does, however, go beyond building sources and interviewing people for stories. Engaged journalism differs from more traditional forms of journalism by redefining who is an expert, breaking down boundaries and centering the experiences of people not fully represented or left out entirely of traditional media.

We created this program and recruited this cohort with the belief that changing the practice of journalism must be accelerated. And, importantly, by accelerating this change we will create new connections that can be deepened and ultimately earn the support of new members.

Making those new connections is critical to rebuilding and sustaining robust local newsrooms. The local news ecosystem has been ravaged. Over the last 15 years, a quarter of all newspapers in the United States have died. The job losses coincide with a rapid rise of mis/disinformation, accelerated by social media platforms. As a result, there’s been a loss of trust in democratic institutions and a fraying of civic life.

This stark reality is also a reminder that the path to sustainable local journalism is not to double-down on the way things have always been and not to rely only on existing audiences.

Tom Rosenstiel, Visiting Professor on the Future of Journalism at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, said it succinctly in a recent conversation:

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“Journalism is not going to make it with the current funnel. And the only way you widen the funnel is with these skills.”

Instead of centering the perspective of power brokers, we need to ask people what matters to them. To do that, we have to challenge traditional expectations of what constitutes news, who decides what is objective, even what accuracy means.

Widening disparities in education, health care, and criminal justice have laid bare the failure of so many of our systems. Those include failures of the media, including journalists, who are still grappling with how to address the institutionalized racism that has framed communities, coverage, and workplaces for generations. The pandemic and racial reckoning have only accelerated these trends.

There is obviously value in serving — and super serving — the existing audiences or audience for local news organizations. But the reality is that public radio supporters and listeners are mostly white, educated, and affluent. As we seek to truly deliver on our mission of serving the public, we must broaden and connect with audiences that reflect the entirety of the communities we serve. This is a business imperative.

This work would not be possible without the support of The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the partnership of the American Press Institute. We also owe a debt to the innovative work of Jennifer Brandel and the Hearken team, our friends at Solutions Journalism Network, and the authors of the Table Stakes and Media Transformation Challenge programs. We’re very much looking forward to working with MPR, WBEZ and WBUR and, even more, looking forward to our whole group sharing case studies and a road map with everyone.

What questions do you have about Southern California?