What “engagement” means to Honolulu’s Civil Beat

John Temple, editor of the Civil Beat (and formerly of the Rocky Mountain News), poses this question: How do you behave when you’re a trusted friend? On John’s staff, the people known as “reporter/hosts” are working to build relationships with readers, and a relationships involves sharing information about themselves and being present in their coverage.

“Readers actually do want (reporters) to tell it like it is, tell them what it means, cut to the quick,” John says. His staff has heard that refrain from readers enough that they’re seeing the value in it. “It’s made them more comfortable over time with a combination of news and opinion.” The reporter/hosts spend most of their time reporting, but they’re also charged with interacting meaningfully with readers, online and in person.

The seven-month-old Civil Beat doesn’t accept advertising and is built on a membership model. President Randy Ching (formerly of eBay) said the goal was to invest in investigative journalism in a commercially sustainable way. They want to build a product people value and are willing to pay for. Non-members can read discussions, and they have access to some articles free. Membership options include $1.49 for a single day and $19.99 for a month.

So, how do you go about becoming the readers’ trusted friend? Here are some strategies that Randy and John (in separate Skype interviews) shared:

— Participate in conversation, listening as well as talking. The online discussions and comments are treated as a priority. Staff members answer questions and clarify points raised by members. They behave in a way that sets the tone for the conversations. Randy says they’re also encouraged to share their own perspective and analysis — not to convince people to agree with them but to be transparent about what they believe. John talks about transparency in terms of not pretending the reporters weren’t there. He used the example of a war correspondent who is less concerned with balance than with painting a realistic, personally observed picture. “(Readers will) actually read the same sort of report about city hall,” he said. “We’re definitely present in our articles and in our stories … I’ve never seen any traditional news organization do what we do.” (Find the Civil Beat at @CivilBeat or #becivil on Twitter.)

— Be willing to share things about yourself. The journalists are encouraged to share personal perspectives as part of their coverage, as was the case when Robert Brown, who once played college football, covered the tryouts for a new Hawaii football league. Civil Beat wants the people of Honolulu to see the site and say, “Those are people I want to be with. Their approach to the world is something worth supporting — something I want to be a part of.” It comes down to the people. The brand, sure. But behind the brand is made up of the actions of individuals — how they represent themselves and whether they’re someone you’d what to listen to and talk to.

— Be really transparent about the news process and how information was gathered. This summer, when a meeting with a police department PIO turned into a sort of hysterical example of a lack of openness, John wrote about the saga. It turns out readers are interested in how journalists do what they do, John says.

— Learn to hold back in discussions. Journalists have strong opinions and like to win arguments, John says. But that approach can stifle discussion. They try hard to interact in ways that lead to more open-ended discussion, rather than dropping some authoritative facts in and leaving.

— Ask hard questions, and hold officials accountable in a way the public would want you to. Politicians have started to mention Civl Beat’s fact check feature, joking that they’d better be careful what they say, or they’ll end up in the fact check. John said the members want to feel like the staff is working on their behalf, tirelessly asking questions and seeking answers. That’s one way Civil Beat stays focused on its specific audience of people who want to be or already are engaged in their community. The members are almost certainly voters. They’re looking for fearless reporting that will help them stay well-informed.

— Ask (and listen, and then act on) what’s important to members. The Civil Beat is dependent on its audience. Members pay for the journalists to do work they value, so respecting the opinions and priorities of the membership is crucial. “That colors how we would participate in conversations because we know these are the people we’re working for,” John says. (Acknowledgment: Because the primary audience here is already civically engaged, seeking their input and acting on it might be easier than it would be for more mainstream organizations. But the concept of not just listening but acting on what you hear is one that’s important to me.)

— Likewise, give prominent play to readers’ perspectives. When religion became a topic of interest in the recent election, the staff received a thoughtful letter from someone involved in the story and published it as prominently as the article it was responding to, recognizing it as a vital part of the conversation. (And actually, the site very rarely labels content as “opinion.” Perspective pieces are treated as articles.)

— Host beat-ups (like tweet-ups, but around a topic). The staff brings key players in Hawaii and community members to the Civil Beat offices, connecting people who otherwise wouldn’t necessarily talk.

— Keep the focus on issues that will help readers feel smarter. The site focuses on topic pages, recognizing that the shelf life of a lot of news is much longer than the daily news cycle has trained us to believe. Because the whole site is organized around key, meaty issues and topics, it’s easy for readers to get the information they need.

Randy says the focus on customer probably differentiates it from a traditional newspaper. “If our customers value what we’re producing, they’ll come back and pay for it. We have to serve the customer.” That attention to and responsiveness to audience concerns is something that, for the Civil Beat, is tied to money, and to sustainability. That’s a powerful motivator indeed.

This was originally posted on the blog of the Reynolds Journalism Institute, where I am a 2010-2011 fellow.

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