How to get ideas for coverage and reach more people by asking your audience

Social media presents a challenge to the traditional role news organizations have played as gatekeepers of information — anyone with a smartphone can now engage in public discourse. But by submitting questions to the public in  “callouts,” newsrooms can find valuable new leads and gain a deeper understanding of what the public needs.

“We can broaden those audiences and serve people that maybe we have neglected in the past,” Mclatchy’s Hannah Wise said during the 2021 Alaska Press Club Conference.

Wise outlined steps newsrooms can take to craft callouts that generate smarter coverage.

What’s in the article?

  • Local news organizations can create stronger ties with the communities they serve and find sources by submitting questions to the public in “callouts.”
  • There are several ways of doing this— from online forms to in-person events.
  • A good callout has a clear audience in mind, and is transparent about what will be done with the information.
  • Callouts should be conversations. Participants should be notified what was done with their responses and allowed to provide feedback.
  • Southern California-based KPCC developed a comprehensive callout program that helped it define a new childhood development beat and reach demographics underrepresented in its listenership.

This article is based on a talk given by Hannah Wise of McClatchy at a conference hosted by The Alaska Press Club, a nonprofit that provides continuing education, recognition and help to journalists across the 49th state. Become a member to support local journalism and attend the annual conference.

Mediums for callouts

Callouts can take many forms. Technology is efficient, but not strictly necessary. Some common types include:

  • Written articles
  • Audio stories
  • Video packages
  • Social posts
  • Facebook groups
  • Hearken
  • Google forms
  • SMS messaging
  • On-site comments
  • Video calls
  • Postcards/letters
  • Fliers
  • In-person events
  • Office hours
  • Conversations

Before you craft your callout, think about this:

  • Do you have a clear audience in mind?
  • Is there risk to people who submit information? Make sure participants understand any risks they may be taking.

Outline a plan

Create a callout by answering these questions:

  • What is our question?
  • What identifying/verifying info is needed from submitters?
  • Who will collect the information, and how?
  • Who will process or edit submissions?
  • What does the end product look like?
  • When will we respond to submitters with a finished product, how will it happen, and who will do it?

Attributes of strong callouts

A good callout:

  • Taps into an experience that people want to tell a news organization or the public about.
  • Is neither too broad nor too specific.
  • Is framed with a narrative and reporting for context.
  • Takes the form of direct, easy questions.
  • Puts the most important questions first.
  • Collects basic information to verify sources.
  • Communicates to its audience how the questions will be used.
  • Doesn’t publish information from people with unverified identities.

Close the loop

Good callouts aren’t questions shouted into the void— they’re conversations.

“Make sure you tell people what you did with their stuff,” Wise said. “Make sure that they know how you used their work, and that you are opening it up to listen to that feedback. 

Warning: Don’t be an askhole

Community input matters, but reporters still need to practice journalistic judgement with the stories they select based on callouts.  Stories should still serve a real purpose and be answering a real need. Hearken cofounder Jennifer Brandel calls media that only choose stories from callouts based on popular demand “askholes.”

“We ask for their story, we extract their experiences and concerns, and then we package and polish them up to share with audiences for our own financial gain,” Brandel wrote. “We don’t follow up. We don’t thank them. We don’t ask what they need. We just ask for what we need from them.”

Case study of a good callout

Southern California public radio station KPCC wanted to improve how it covered early childhood education and development. Most coverage in this area focuses on K-12 education, but KPCC wanted to focus on the first five years of life, when incredibly important development happens. So it designed a five-part plan to help it carve out this new beat:

  1. Development of stakeholder map and target characteristics

Using the prior reporting of KPCC’S Priska Neely, the station identified people with actual stakes in childhood development, like parents and childcare professionals. From that it picked out common characteristics— which helped develop “target profiles” of stakeholders it would need to talk to in order to capture a wide range of experiences.

  1. Interviewing the stakeholders

KPCC started conducting in-person interviews with people who fit its target profiles. Questions were designed to be open-ended, so that the stakeholders would have an easier time suggesting anything that crossed their minds.

  1. Synthesis

The station sorted through the interviews to identify common themes and observations, then used those to construct profiles of types of listeners— what kind of information they wanted, and how they used it. Some consumed KPCC’s journalism constantly to feed their curiosity, while others were outside the station’s reach and needed critical information to connect to resources.

  1. Brainstorming

Using what it had learned, KPCC gathered journalists and non-reporting staff to brainstorm coverage ideas and new ways to reach listeners.

  1. Developing prototypes

KPCC created and tested multiple projects from the brainstorming, including putting flyers with critical information in libraries and parks, convening weekly gatherings to talk to stakeholders and encourage a sense of community, and producing children’s book readings.

KPCC’s goal was both to better serve its listeners and to bond it closer to the community. The hard work yielded dividends; a January 2019 panel on Black infant mortality the station advertised with flyers and postcards was attended by over 100 Black women. Black women are disproportionately impacted by infant mortality, but only represent a fraction of KPCC’s listenership. The station attributed the success of the event to its unconventional outreach, which was brainstormed during the callout process.

Efforts like these demonstrate the potential for callouts to bring news organizations closer to their audiences.

“Journalists working in local news, working in community environments, they make the community stronger,” Wise said. “We can be the glue that’s really bringing our communities together.”

Written by Max Jungreis

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