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Earn the trust of a diverse audience by investing in relationships

Photo of Caroline Bauman
Caroline Bauman

Caroline is Chalkbeat’s Community Engagement Manager. She strengthens our reporters’ relationships with the communities they serve through reader input, audience engagement, and events.

Why this?

We can’t talk about widespread distrust of journalists and declining readership trends without first talking about who mainstream news was historically created for (and, who it historically left out). Most newsrooms already know how to create content for middle class, educated, and white audiences, but we’re missing so much of the story if we ignore the repairing and rebuilding work that needs to happen with the readers who have been massively underserved.

If we’re willing to make the investment, it means we can create journalism that’s inclusive of diverse communities and generates greater impact. At Chalkbeat, we’ve seen this journalism propel state action, shut down corrupt schools, and elevate voices often not heard at decision-making tables. It’s slow, diligent work, and it’s worth it.

The common mistake

The news industry has been terrible at gaining and growing a diverse readership. Historically, it has cared more about advertising and subscription dollars than public trust and community service, and it shows. Often, news organizations try to solve this problem and grow new audiences by investing in social media and new SEO strategies. Without allocating time and resources, creating audience and engagement teams and saying, “Go forth, build the readership among X neighborhood or X group of people,” won’t be successful. Newsrooms are often stretched incredibly thin, so the harder tasks of changing behavior and culture are overtaken by the immediate needs. Organizations invest in tools, but not in trust.

Our approach

We bake listening into everything we do.

Authentic listening in journalism doesn’t just magically happen. You have to design intentional patterns of behavior. Reader callouts — using Google forms to pose a question or prompt to readers and letting their responses help guide our coverage — have helped fuel Chalkbeat’s reporting for years. These surveys let us hear from several voices all at once and shape our journalism on the front end, rather than our reporters showing up to a community meeting or school pick-up line with a story already in mind. We work with nonprofits, community organizations, and neighborhood experts to help get our surveys in front of non-Chalkbeat readers.

A screenshot of a reader callout Chalkbeat sent out.

We use free survey tools to create reader callouts. Here, we asked about early learning experiences and received responses from parents, educators, and school leaders.

Challenges: students struggling with trauma, lack of mental health support, changing/new curricular requirements, lack of support staff in schools, too high of an emphasis on data collection and getting back to normal and not nearly enough emphasis on supporting students and families who are struggling.

How can we support struggling parents with enrolling their children in early childhood programs? How can we ensure that early childhood educators are respected, valued, compensated, and supported so that we can retain and attract high quality educators?

COVID-19 made this work even more essential as in-person spaces for our journalists to hear new perspectives disappeared. We launched more than 40 callouts in 2021, and heard from over 6,300 people on topics ranging from learning in a pandemic to gun violence and student debt. We used these surveys to infuse our journalism with parent, teacher, and student voices at critical moments in time. And we don’t stop there. We return to these groups of people with new information and new questions — to make sure we’re answering the most pressing questions and producing journalism that matters to them. This helps us form a community built around relationships and good information.

We proactively elevate voices, and hold ourselves accountable.

When people feel represented in journalism — when they hear and read voices that they trust and that remind them of their own stories — trust is built. But not enough newsrooms have systems in place to hold them accountable to source diversity. This is changing. We’ve started internal audits, where we track our source diversity and are now building a product with the Reynolds Journalism Institute to make this work long lasting at Chalkbeat and newsrooms beyond. We have to develop better systems industry-wide to keep track of whose voices and perspectives we’re elevating in order to hold ourselves accountable.

First Person authors: Demographic race and ethnicity comparison chart

Since 2019, Chalkbeat has tracked the racial demographics of its First Person essayists in order to audit the diversity of those represented on the site. We are building a tool to help the newsroom track demographics of the sources within our stories.

We use inclusive language and style.

We want people to feel seen and understood in our stories, not misrepresented or othered by our word choices. We never assume — we always ask people to self-identify. We are careful never to “other” anyone by using a description that separates or denigrates them. Instead of using a label to identify someone with a disability, situation, or illness, Chalkbeat uses people-first language, such as a student experiencing homelessness rather than a homeless student. Like reporting, language should be continuously evolving and responsive. After George Floyd’s death, Chalkbeat added antiracism to our list of core values, promising that by committing to antiracism we can “offer stronger, more honest coverage, and build more trust with our readers.” As we reflected on what that meant with respect to language, we decided to capitalize the word Black when describing race, people, and culture, giving the term and the people and culture it describes as much weight and respect as when we capitalize the words Indigenous or Latino.

A table that gives examples of people-first language. Avoid "homeless student" and instead use "studen experiencing housing insecurities." Avoid "confined to a wheelchair" and instead use "uses a wheelchair." Avoid "low-income student" and instead use "students from low-income families."

These are some examples of how Chalkbeat uses people-first language to be as inclusive as possible.

We design events that prioritize listening and trust building.

Events are a powerful tool to elevate quality journalism, to reach new communities with your work in creative ways, and to think strategically about creating impact. But too often, journalism organizations design events to elevate voices that already have a lot of power and platform, or create events that won’t attract readers beyond their usual circles.

Designing events around listening, conversation, and centering new voices has always been part of our strategy. We elevated students as experts on their education experiences and connected them to decision makers. We strived to make in-person events easy to attend by providing childcare, translation, and meals. Whether in person or virtual, our goal of listening has remained the same. We view our events as service journalism — and as a way to reach new audiences. In our pivot to virtual events, our goal of listening remained the same. 

A screenshot of an invitation to a Chalkbeat Colorado event about mental health and racial justice.

Chalkbeat's events prioritize elevating the voices of students and educators.

An unexpected benefit of the virtual world is that we could design events for anyone across the nation to listen and learn, and we got feedback in our post-event surveys that our virtual events were helpful and engaging. We know we reached new folks with them — of the 2,271 event attendees who joined live, 1,758 became new newsletter subscribers.

Lastly, we also ask our event attendees for voluntary demographic information, so we can hold ourselves accountable to creating events that attract a wide range of people. Of event attendees over the last year who took our survey, 52% identified as a person of color.

We’re creating products that make high-value information easy and accessible.

Digital media — like all types of media — is guilty of producing content in formats that aren’t accessible to many of the people we want to reach. Two of our markets — Memphis and Detroit — have particularly terrible internet-at-home rates, so we’ve used SMS tools to text people with important information. One example: When the pandemic started and school buildings began closing, Memphis parents told us that it was difficult to understand the district’s new food distribution system. We published maps in English and in Spanish online that made it easy to find free food sites, and we created a texting tool for folks without internet access. The tool was used nearly 300 times within two weeks— about half by Spanish speakers. We made accessing high-value information easy — and that builds trust and loyalty.

Two screenshots of SMS messages that Chalkbeat has sent to readers. The first message allowed recipients to input their zip code and find free meals at the beginning of the pandemic. The second message asked readers for their opinion on how federal stimulus funds should be spent in their school district.

SMS tools have allowed Chalkbeat to connect with people who may not have reliable internet access. We've used this to share free meal sites and solicit questions before town hall meetings.

Key Takeaways
  • Authentic listening in journalism requires systems and resources.

    There has to be thoughtfulness, intentionality, and urgency behind our investments. Money and new tools won’t magically solve problems or cure mistrust.

  • Put yourself in the right physical and digital spaces to meet people outside your usual readership.

    You’ve then got to listen, learn, and respond with journalism that’s helpful and true to their experiences. It’s slow work, but it’s the only way loyalty is built.

  • Experimentation is everything, as is giving yourself room to fail.

    We’ve planned some events that flopped and have created some surveys that didn’t land. We learned, we adapted, and we started asking our readers more often, “What do you want to see?” It sounds so simple, but when you go to readers or would-be readers and ask for ideas and questions — and then deliver with some answers — loyalty and trust come naturally.

  • We have to hold our own industry accountable and create measures of success.

    It’s one thing to say you want to improve the diversity of your staff and of your sources, it’s another thing to track those efforts and create goals for improvement.

What is the Local News Field Guide?

The Local News Field Guide is a resource for journalists and news entrepreneurs tackling the ever-changing landscape of news. The guide is written by staff members of Chalkbeat, a nonprofit news organization that provides essential local education reporting.

The Local News Field Guide is supported by Chalkbeat's partnership with the Google News Initiative (GNI).

Learn More