A project of Democracy Fund

July 1, 2014

How to Engage Readers: 3 Sites Doing It Right

I have John L. Robinson’s “Fix Local Media or Die” (Parts 1 and 2) blog posts bookmarked, and I occasionally go back to reread them (and the excellent comments), along with posts by Chris Wink and others who are giving solid, straightforward advice about the importance of engaging the public in meaningful ways for the long term sustainability of local news and, more importantly, for the vitality of our communities. It seems obvious that sustainability and engagement are inextricably linked, yet newsrooms regularly miss opportunities to bring the community into the storytelling process, leaving many voices excluded and important stories untold.

“Talk with people in the community. They’re the ones who you are trying to serve. Don’t survey them. We have enough surveys. Talk to them about what they need and how you can serve them. When was the last time you — a newsroom journalist — asked someone what you could do for them?” – John L. Robinson

Fostering deeper community engagement is a top priority for Dodge’s Media work in New Jersey. I am certain Josh and I will be writing about it frequently here on the Local News Lab and sharing examples where we see those who are doing it well, such as sites like ProPublica (a Dodge grantee), Sandy Storyline and the Christian Science Monitor. These three sites make prominent use of their top navigation menus to invite genuine audience participation, welcoming readers as partners right from the start, and then follow up with a variety of creative and simple ways to get involved.


Take a look at ProPublica’s Get Involved page. It is chock full of ways for readers to participate: they can share their personal experiences, volunteer their time and expertise, contribute tips on stories and more. And you can see it’s working: 3,141 tips shared and 11,374 contributors have helped enhance ProPublica’s journalism – made the stories richer, better.

To be clear – this is an important point – ProPublica is not asking for donations on its get involved page. It is asking for readers’ knowledge, experiences and expertise.

ProPublica menu

ProPublica Get Involved

Nonprofit news organizations looking for foundation funding should be paying close attention to ProPublica’s engagement efforts.

Sandy Storyline

Sandy Storyline is a “participatory documentary” – a project to collect and share stories of Hurricane Sandy’s impact on our lives and our communities. In the top menu on its website, the call to participate is prominent, and you can’t miss the different ways the site invites people to join the project: call with your story, text your images, submit your story online, and attend in-person events.

Sandy Storylines Header and Menu

Sandy Storylines

Although Sandy Storyline is not a traditional local news site, it is journalism for the communities impacted by the hurricane. Any of its tools for collecting stories could be powerful for community journalism sites as well as any nonprofit looking to connect with and improve its community.

Christian Science Monitor

A recent study by the Engaging News Project (referenced here) found that readers like stories about problems when the stories include possible solutions to those problems, which is why the Christian Science Monitor’s new “Take Action” section on its website strikes the right chord for me. It aims to empower its readers to make a difference on issues and stories that inspire or move them in some way.

CS Monitor menu

Christian Science Monitor

This screen shot shows how the Monitor is soliciting feedback on potential paths to reader action, side by side with a reader survey for feedback. It’s a start and a step in the right direction for the Monitor, and I like the plainspoken way it talks about why and how it is committed to reader involvement. I look forward to seeing how the Take Action page will take shape over the coming months.

“At the Monitor, we’re committed to providing the most illuminating, non-partisan reporting possible. That will never change. However, we’re also interested in providing paths to action for readers who’ve been inspired by a story or something happening in the world. Below, you’ll find a few of the simple initial ideas we’re considering. We’d love to get your feedback. Which paths to action would you welcome and use?” – Marshall Ingwerson, Editor

If you are a news organization – large or small – how are you thinking about using your site to foster reader engagement? Do you have simple ways for people to take small actions? Are the calls to action prominent on your website? Are they tools for adding to the journalism itself, or is your site focused on engaging readers primarily through comments and donations?

If you have examples of other creative and forward-thinking online engagement tools, please share them in the comments below.