Outreach team serves democracy, along with Taylor Swift fans

First published at the Missourian’s Transition blog.

On a Monday a few weeks ago, the Missourian’s community outreach team delivered a product that contributed to civic empowerment and democratic conversation. On the next Wednesday, I spent my day on a task that made me wholly uncomfortable.

All in all, not a bad week.

First I’ll discuss the pride. Then the discomfort.

The city budget was up for review, and the most contentious of the proposed changes affected bus routes and prices. We expected larger than usual turnout at the City Council meeting, and we knew most of them would be there because of this one, emotionally charged issue.

One of my missions for our team is to identify who most wants and needs our content, and make an attempt to help them find it. In this case, we did.

We turned weeks’ worth of transit budget reporting into a two-page handout, and we took it to the council meeting.

Much of the credit goes to reporter Steven Rich and Public Life Editor Scott Swafford, who brilliantly distilled the information. Scott, who has covered government in Columbia probably since before I became a journalist, told me I should make 100 copies and expect to have some left over.

As it turned out, the chamber was overflowing. Kaikang Wang, the outreach team member who volunteered to come with me, and I handed out all 100 and could have distributed another 50. People were coming up asking us for more. Not a single person questioned why we were doing it or whether it was appropriate.

Here’s why it worked:

  • We provided neutral, authoritative facts where we knew not everyone present would have had equal access to them.
  • People were sitting and waiting for quite awhile, and in that situation, many people will read whatever’s in front of them, so we had a captive audience.
  • We had established trustworthiness on this issue. A few people actually turned the flier down because they’d brought clippings of Missourian coverage with them.

Unlike with our 9/11 handout, which did not link back to our website, we did put together an article that aggregated our content on this issue. We put the URL, along with a QR code, at the bottom, knowing we might not have a big smartphone crowd but figuring it couldn’t hurt.

And because one of my goals is to look for ways to make our staff of experienced editors more visible, we put Scott’s picture at the bottom, along with contact information for the reporter and me. Our executive editor, Tom Warhover, suggested we include a picture, and no one is more credible on city government than Scott Swafford.

Now, the discomfort.

For two days, I became the Missourian’s marketing department.

I got the attention of our general manager, Dan Potter, when I suggested we find a sponsor for a trivia contest we’re planning. We haven’t done that before (tie a sponsor to a contest, brand the contest with that sponsor’s name, tweet out info about a sponsor, etc.), but I’m eager to try it. And I haven’t run up against any resistance.

Then, a day after having that conversation, Dan said the Missourian had some tickets to a Taylor Swift concert in Kansas City this weekend, and would I like to put together a quick contest or giveaway?

I hate to say no to an opportunity, so we quickly partnered with Vox Magazine, figured out a way to get people clicking around on our website and liking our Facebook pages, put together a quick survey to gather some demographics, organized the logistics of the contest and got going.

I’m really comfortable with many aspects of marketing the news, and I wish newsrooms would relax about the whole topic of promoting us and our work.

There are two reasons I was uneasy about what I did i this case:

  • One, there was no tie to content. No news quiz. No helping the journalism. I just couldn’t figure out a way to tie a survey about what city ward people lived in to Taylor Swift tickets. It just didn’t work.
  • Two, I missed some real journalism opportunities and conversations while I was figuring out how to embed a picture of Taylor Swift under a story and whether the people coming to pick up their tickets would need to show a photo ID.

I’m glad we did it. We got less participation than I expected, it took more time than I expected and I forgot to ask for email addresses of the people who filled out our survey! But the whole thing was a learning experience.

We’ll be analyzing how many page views our contest page got, how many Facebook fans we gained and what we could have done better.

I’m happy to have been pushed out of my comfort zone. And no harm was done.

Plus, I’ll always have Monday, and the serving of democracy. Not a bad week overall.

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