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How It Works

The image below shows the various steps required by a newsroom to establish an OSSJ model.

Let’s break each part down further to learn what each step entails, and how you can recreate it.

Establishing Newsroom-Community Relationships

The first step in this process occurs when the newsroom conducts outreach to the community it serves. This can be done with the help of community partners and local organizations.

These community partners can be nonprofit organizations, community groups, city resources, or even journalism collaboratives. By connecting with these organizations, it makes it more likely that you will understand the needs and wants of the people they serve.

It is also important to begin setting metrics for yourself to know what your exact goals are, and to determine if you’ve reached them. What is the minimum number of people from the community that you want to hear from? How will you keep track of engagement?

By thinking in this way and beginning to reach out, the newsroom learns more about the audience and builds trust between journalists and the community.

Our project focused on the Cleveland neighborhood of Slavic Village. By reaching out to organizations local to the community like the namesake Slavic Village Development Corporation and University Settlement, we were able to learn more about the issues that usually concern residents and which impact people’s everyday lives.

Furthermore, these organizations often know the best way to reach people, and some of the barriers that might exist to effective communication.

Our community partners even set up Zoom meetings between the newsroom, the student team, and residents of Slavic Village in order to open up discussions about what they would like to see reported on, how the newsroom can engage more effectively, etc.

Assessing Barriers

As your newsroom begins to learn more, you will start to identify potential challenges to informing the entire community. What resources does the community lack? If a large number audience members lack an effective way to receive information, are there other cost-effective ways the audience could potentially be reached (texting, phone calls, flyers, etc.)?

During the pilot phase of our project, we realized that easy access to electronic news platforms for a large cross-section of citizens is a problem. Only 66% of Cleveland households have broadband internet subscriptions, and 79% have a computer.

There are also social barriers that have to be overcome. For instance, distrust of the media is also problematic for many newsrooms. “I don’t want my children getting their facts from the news” and “our needs are not discussed in large media” were just two quotes taken from a series of interviews with community members. This is where transparency — not just in your intentions, but in your methods — is key.

Overcoming Barriers with Technology

Recognizing these barriers is the first step to overcoming them. Once properly identified, your newsroom can start to apply technological solutions to these issues.

Inaccessibility of reliable internet service is an issue that is extremely common, and it would be the most difficult issue to overcome if we were going to open the doors of the newsroom to community members.

We knew that we wanted to reach as many people as possible during the pandemic and cold weather in 2020, but these events made it difficult to do so in person. As a result, we decided to use text messaging technology as a way to connect with people.

The platform our team decided on was Subtext, an SMS-based platform used by many newsrooms to send subscribers links to articles or conduct polls via texting. The way it works is simple: the newsroom can send out a message to a large number of people, which they receive as a normal text message. When audience members respond, the messages are sent to a dashboard that can be viewed by members of the newsroom.

Many newsrooms have used this technology to send out one-way messages, and some do not look through the messages sent in response by audience members.

We wanted to use this technology in a slightly different way: we wanted to ask questions, encourage discussion and solicit comments from the audience, not just send information out. We made it clear that we were listening and that we wanted to hear about the issues that they believed deserve more news coverage. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we responded to people. That surprised many participants who didn’t believe that anyone was listening on the other end.

Other tools exists that could be adapted for similar purposes. Twilio is a service that offers the ability to send a large number of messages to subscribers, and is programmer-friendly in that API documentation is provided online for it. SimpleTexting is a similar service, with the added bonus that it can be integrated with MailChimp.

That is not to say that this model requires that you use texting to connect with your community — just that this was the most effective way for us to open a line of communication between our partner newsroom and its audience. Every community will have different needs, and you may find that your newsroom has to implement other means of reaching out to the audience.

No matter which platform you choose to engage with your audience at a deeper level, it is essential that you return to to the metrics and begin keeping track of analytics to ensure that you have successfully met your goals or, if you’ve fallen short of them, begin to assess why and take on a different approach.

Encouraging Discussion

When you feel as though your newsroom is able to connect with a substantial number of community members and that this sample is representative of the entire population of the community, you can start reaching out further.

During this phase of the process, you have the chance to ask people which issues are most important to them, and whether or not they have received adequate coverage. Additionally, with the technology implemented in the previous step, community members now have a direct line to bring those concerns to you at any time.

You can use the discussions you’ve had with your community to begin to develop story ideas and investigate issues that impact the audience.

Gathering Community Feedback

After your newsroom has had a chance to develop stories based on the ideas brought to you by the community, take a moment to meet with them again to see if their concerns were accurately reflected in the work that you did. Did you address the questions they brought to you? Was the work you did thorough enough? Is there anything, in terms of the two-way communication channel you established or the work that you produced, that the audience feels needs to change?

You can also check in with yourself and the goals your newsroom set out in the beginning.

Once you receive this feedback, you have reached an extremely advantageous point compared to other newsrooms: not only have you developed more meaningful stories that directly address the needs of your audience, but you now have established a solid foundation for communicating with the audience and receiving those story ideas in the future.

What Makes it an “Open-Source” Solutions Journalism Model?

“Open-source” is a term that originated in the software industry to describe projects whose source code was made publicly available for others to use, modify, and suggest permanent changes to (as opposed to proprietary software, which is normally owned by a person or company and which users are not permitted to copy, modify, or reuse without permission from the original owners).

Open-source software is worth admiring because it stresses transparency, inclusiveness, and freedom. These are some of the same principles that we want to incorporate into our work as journalists.

In many ways, our project is not just crowd-sourced, but open-sourced in the sense that it is free for other news rooms to adopt, change, and contribute to. We want to stress transparency, inclusiveness, and freedom at every level — from individual contributions to a newsroom’s content, to the very model itself. As a result, we encourage local newsrooms to try this approach and discuss what worked for them, what didn’t, and what ideas could be implemented in this model in the future.

A Quick Recap

In summary, here are the steps to setting up an effective OSSJ model:

  • Establish a relationship with your community by reaching out to community partners and individuals.
  • Use this relationship to learn about the barriers to convenient access to information faced by those in the community.
  • Set measurable quantitative goals to know how many people you’d like to get involved in your newsroom’s work.
  • Establish an effective means of communicating with those in your target audience by using the technology most accessible to them. Perform a pilot run to make sure this technology is a suitable solution for the problems you identified earlier. Most importantly: Make sure you provide a two-way communication channel by which the audience can bring concerns and ideas to you.
  • Encourage discussion. Inquire about the most pressing issues to the audience. Use information gathered this way to supplement the traditional reporting process.
  • Publish detailed, factual stories inspired by the audience’s expressed needs.
  • Use audience feedback on both individual stories and the two-way communication model to build on the work you’ve already done. At this point you can share your work or continue working to perfect the model for your newsroom’s purposes.
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