Newsletter: 4 strategies for building strong relationships with our communities

Language matters.

When newsrooms think of communities as their “audience,” we imagine their existence only in relation to the products and services we offer. Of course, journalists know that the people who read, watch and listen to our stories don’t solely exist in this vacuum. But when we talk about the people who engage daily with our content as “traffic,” “followers,” “commenters,” “subscribers” and “members,” it’s easy to lose sight of the reality outside of work, and let metrics govern our logic.

Language matters. How journalists think about and frame the communities they serve influences the issues they explore, the assignments they pursue, the way stories are edited, packaged and distributed, and how success is understood in their organization.

That’s why I want to share with you, dear readers, Discourse’s four main strategies for building genuine and productive relationships with our communities:

  • Step into your communities’ shoes, and understand them from their perspective

  • Pluralize your understanding of “community,” so don’t assume yours is a monolith

  • Establish an ongoing dialogue and engage deeply with particular communities

  • Invest time and resources into forming meaningful relationships with your communities

Step into your communities’ shoes

The work that sounds the simplest can sometimes be the most complex. At the foundational level, we try to ensure that our insider knowledge of the newsroom isn’t leaving us disconnected from the daily lives of everyone we serve. For this reason,Discourse aims to expose buried truths, break down complexity, inspire action and encourage respectful public dialogue. Because we’re an investigative outlet that practicessolutions journalism and covers deeply rooted systemic problems, breaking down complexity is a particularly important goal for us. To make complicated issues more accessible, Discourse strives to provide the building blocks for comprehension.

For example, we recently launched a three-part investigative series into the human impacts of Canada’s “shadow population,” or transient workers who move temporarily to resource development sites far away from home and live in work camps. Since there’s little information on this groupDiscourse released an explainer video several days beforethe series was published. Called “What’s a camp?” it broke down who’s part of this shadow population, how many workers there currently are and where they live when working. Our rationale? The more people understand an issue, the more they’ll want to learn and — hopefully — the more they’ll be empowered to take action.

Next, we try to understand how Discourse stories and services are intersecting with the daily lives of our community members. There are many ways to accomplish this. First, we analyze social and website metrics, as well as online surveys. Second, we ask questions: What kind of feedback do our reporters get? What trends do we see in the conversations happening on social media? How are we capturing audience sentiment whenever our employees answer community queries, or reach out to subscribers/members? How are we using live events to listen to and engage with communities (e.g. Discourse frequently holds in-person “listening events” where stakeholders gather to share their views, questions and concerns around a Discourse project)? Generally speaking, news organizations don’t fully capture and connect the dots on useful information that’s already available about the communities they serve, and then fail to circulate that knowledge to the rest of the newsroom.

Discussion around an issue often tapers off once a story is published and promoted, as it’s no longer the news organization’s focus. Discourse, on the other hand, tries to engage communities in our editorial process, from before reporting begins — all the way to post-publication. We want audience members to take conversation beyond our platforms and continue debating elsewhere — both on- and offline. That’s why Discourse holds editorial postmortems with our readership in various forms, including Twitter chats and live-streamed Q&As.

In sum, we encourage reporters to take off their “insider” hats, and engage with their stories from the community’s perspective. How? By providing opportunities for reporters to spend time with community members outside the tunnel vision of chasing a story.

Pluralize your understanding of ‘community’

At Discourse, we know this notion of “the community” is a rhetorical device for journalists, rather than a reality. No matter how specific some of our coverage areas may be, we understand that our audience isn’t a monolith, so we try to avoid falling into the trap of having one or several default imagined readers, listeners or viewers for which every story is crafted.

Discourse is also mindful of communities we’d like to serve, but who aren’t engaging with us. Our employees try to think from the perspective of people who may not gravitate towards the kinds of stories we publish. The more we consider various communities who’ll likely engage with our journalism, or those who might but currently aren’t, the more likely we’ll design products and services that foster deeper participation.

Focus dedicated engagement on particular communities

Discourse has invested significantly in developing an ongoing dialogue with our overall audience, and with particular communities within that audience, through our newsletter strategy. Discourse newsletters aim to add value to readers’ lives by empowering them to address the issues they care about most in their communities. There’s this general innovation newsletter, and each reporter’s individual newsletter, which focuses on their assigned beat (i.e. DataChild WelfareGender and IdentityIndigenous Issues andSustainable Development). Community members can choose which newsletters to follow, based on their interests. Many subscribers of the reporter-centric newsletters are stakeholders in the communities that Discourse covers, including government officials, nonprofit workers, activists, everyday citizens and others.

Our newsletters don’t only feature links to Discourse stories — they transform the reporting process into a back-and-forth dialogue with audience members. Since they’re a combination of journalist’s diary and community paper, reporters:

  • Provide updates on investigations and invite reader feedback
  • Ask subscribers for information, tips and referrals to sources

  • Experiment with different kinds of “hubs,” including short profiles of community members, listings of local events and resources, videosaudio clips and more

  • Are candid about what they know, what they don’t know and their feelings during the editorial process

We aim to be radically transparent to combat the public’s growing distrust of media. For example, Brielle Morgan wrote about combatting imposter syndrome as a non-Indigenous person covering British Columbia’s child welfare system, which disproportionately impacts Indigenous people, and Wawmeesh Hamilton shared a personal story about adifficult reporting trip to the site of his parents’ old residential school.

Commit resources to relationship development

At the core of Discourse’s model is the understanding that relationship development with the communities that a publication seeks to engage must be a priority. Reporters focus on systemic issues, so what they create isn’t just stories, but also the dialogue they have with the communities they serve. In other words, our journalists are expected to genuinely engage with these communities, beyond producing and promoting a story. That’s whereDiscourse’s unique approach to social media comes in: We use it more as an engagement and education tool, than a promotional tool, as it’s been traditionally used by media outlets. One simple approach that we take, for example, is asking follow-up questions to Twitter users who share our articles.

I hope that the lessons we’re learning from the development of our engagement strategy will inform how media approaches reporter-community relationships. What effective approaches have you seen at other publications? How do you like to connect with news organizations? Send me your thoughts via emailTwitter or Facebook. [end]

Editor’s note: A longer version of this piece, co-written with Sam Ford, a 2017 Knight News Innovation Fellow with Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism and consultant on innovative approaches to storytelling and audience engagement, will be published on


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