by Payton Bruni
In order to take a different route in covering climate change and agriculture, MPR News, the news service of Minnesota Public Radio, launched Feeding the Future , an engagement journalism project set on informing its audience members and identifying solutions to a rapidly changing climate. Led by veteran environmental reporter Elizabeth Dunbar, Feeding the Future used audience engagement tools such as Dialogue Journalism, a method developed by Spaceship Media , to discover the agricultural topics most important to the communities of Minnesota. One of the project’s main creations was a closed Facebook group of a diverse group of farmers, foodies and others interested in the future of the food system in a changing climate. Feeding the Future also set out to serve as a guide for designing, carrying out, and measuring the impacts of engagement journalism in a public media newsroom.
Project Goals: On top of audience building and establishing a model for engagement journalism, Dunbar said one of the specific goals of Feeding the Future was to “create indispensable, distinctive journalism driven by audience questions and insights.”
Tools and Technology: DFeeding the Future used Facebook, LinkedIn, and the Public Insight Network to track engagement and interact with its audience members.
Impact: “In terms of the targets we set and the path we took to measure and meet them, the greatest impact was relational – the changes to behavior in the way people interacted with one another in and outside of the group,” Dunbar said. Some participants provided anecdotes to how Feeding the Future changed their interactions with other group members: “I think by forcing me to have conversations with others I strongly disagree with in a public setting, it makes me better at finding points of theirs I can agree with, while still overall disagreeing with their conclusions.” Dunbar said this statement matches the project’s goal of creating a space for people to listen to one another rather than trying to change people’s minds. She also cited that participants within the Feeding the Future Facebook group had a “high level of trust in MPR News, empathy, and curiosity at the beginning as well as the end of the group.” Specifically, Dunbar noted that participants who claimed to be “extremely curious” concerning the challenges related to the future of agriculture increased from 57 percent to 72 percent.
Organization Background: MPR News is a regional public radio station producing content for radio, digital, and live audiences. MPR News and MPR’s two music services primarily serve the state of Minnesota but also serve surrounding states, reaching 1 million listeners each week. In 2017, Minnesota Public Radio and American Public Media reported an earned revenue and total support of $96.3 million.
Project Resources: Feeding the Future had a budget of approximately $100,000 that was primarily used on internal staff time. Dunbar was the only staff member who worked on Feeding the Future full time but roughly 14 other staff members contributed to the project.
Here’s what worked
1. Going all-in on engagement
Dunbar said focusing on engagement was a major priority throughout the project. “I tried really hard not to worry about what stories I was going to come away with, and not thinking too much about proposing stories and getting things on the schedule.” She said if she had been fixated on meeting a story quota each week, she wouldn’t have spent nearly as much time engaging with the Feeding the Future Facebook group. “The main focus for me was the engagement part of it and then making the content sort of secondary,” Dunbar said.
2. Partnering and collaborating
Feeding the Future worked with Spaceship Media in order to strengthen certain aspects of the project. “They came here and did engagement training and helped us figure out the organizing question of how to recruit and they were also in the Facebook group as moderators,” Dunbar said. There was also strong collaboration between MPR News and other MPR/American Public Media departments, something that isn’t always easily achieved. For example, community engagement staff worked in tandem with editorial staff to recruit for and set up the Facebook group.
3. Putting the audience in the driver’s seat
Dunbar said that listening to the audience and letting them drive the project made the engagement work that much more authentic and sincere. “The point was that this was something on this community’s mind right now and therefore it is news to them and it is information they are seeking,” Dunbar said. Besides serving their information needs, Dunbar said helping community members connect in a safe, moderated space with people who have different viewpoints can help build empathy and trust.
Here’s what could have worked better
1. Individual roles
Dunbar served as project manager, moderator and reporter during the project and explained that it would have been better not to have one project member taking on all of those roles. She noted that it would have especially helped to have a separate project manager who was not responsible for the day-to-day engagement activities. There were also ideas circulating about expanding the group and organizing a meetup or shared meal, but Dunbar’s role as a regular content producer in the newsroom has thus far made it difficult to pursue those ideas.
2. Measuring impact
One challenge the Feeding the Future team faced was how to best measure the project’s impact. Given the time to do so, Dunbar said she would have liked to spend more resources developing a robust system for defining and measuring impact, but feels she and other project team members have a better idea of how to approach this in the future.
3. Looking internally
To drive home the importance of engagement journalism, Dunbar said she would have liked to increase the team’s capacity to talk about the project internally, not just externally. She said discussing engagement work with other journalists and newsrooms is crucial for promoting community-centered news.
Here’s what else you should know
- Changed perspective. Dunbar said working on Feeding the Future changed her mindset about how she gets story ideas. She said it has been a challenge to go back to the “old way” of doing journalism now that the project has finished.
- Engagement and Newsrooms. Dunbar, addressing how to bring engagement work to more newsrooms, said, “It’s not necessarily hiring more people. It’s figuring out what is it going to take to do this type of work and can we re-allocate those resources and show there’s value to it.”
- Resources for all. Feeding the Future worked with Spaceship Media, and so can anyone else looking to utilize Dialogue Journalism. Examples of Spaceship Media’s work can be found here for those interested in collaborating with other engagement practitioners.
To learn more about Feeding the Future, don’t hesitate to reach out to Elizabeth Dunbar by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.