by Christena Dowsett
Curious Texas is an engagement project that allows readers to ask questions and for reporters to answer them. This helps readers to interact with journalists in new and different ways than they are used to in the hopes of building both trust and subscriptions. It was started in 2017 for the Dallas Morning News (DMN) by Hannah Wise. She covered the 2016 police shooting as a breaking news reporter in downtown Dallas on Facebook Live. The coverage of the aftermath led her to consider whether or not the newspaper was fully answering serving the community’s needs. Later with this thought in mind, when the DMN had an opening for a social media position Hannah approached the editors and convinced them what they actually needed was someone who could help engage readers in a new way. This was the start of the Engagement Editor position and Curious Texas soon followed.
Currently Curious Texas is managed by reporter Nataly Keomoungkhoun who splits her time between it and breaking news reporting.
Project goals: The goal for the Dallas Morning News (DMN) is ultimately to increase engagement and thereby increase subscriptions. The DMN has a metered paywall so subscriptions are still vital for the financial future of the institution. However Nataly’s personal goal is to create a trusting relationship with readers. In order to build media literacy she tries to offer glimpses into how she does her reporting.
Tools and technology: In 2017, when President Trump instituted the travel ban on Muslim countries, Hannah created a Google form and sent it out to the community asking to hear reactions from immigrants living in Texas. The form received over 50 responses representing more than 30 countries.
On their website, the DMN has embedded Hearken-powered boxes for readers to ask questions. These questions are sifted through and then a selection of them are kicked back to the readers for a two-week voting round to choose which ones they want to read about. The voting options are put at the bottom of all Curious Texas stories.
Nataly tries to include the question asker in the reporting by reaching back out to them to better understand why they asked their question and what they are hoping to get out of the answer. What will satisfy them.
Outside of the questions that are submitted, there are two other ways they connect with readers. First, they will sometimes set up conference calls where readers can call in and listen to Nataly talk about her projects and how she works on them. Secondly the DMN Marketing team hosts online engagement events through Instagram live where questions are collected beforehand and are answered to a live audience.
Impact: When readers ask questions it gives them a voice to have their concerns heard. Nataly said she never runs out of story ideas because the readers are fueling the project. When they see that their question has been answered, they feel validated. This is the key to earning trust between the local journalists and the community they serve. When the reporting process is transparent, lasting community ties can be built.
There are 907,000 returning visitors to the site which Nataly highlights as vital because it means they are publishing quality material which is engaging to readers. Hannah also set up engagement events by bringing Curious Texas events to libraries in communities where the DMN had low readership.
“Listening is one of the first steps to solving some of the systemic issues in our industry. Seeing the reader as a partner, they can help journalists direct community members to the information they need to live happier, healthier, and more equitable lives,” Hannah said.
Organization Background: The Dallas Morning News was started in 1885, currently has over 270,000 daily subscriptions and is the main newspaper in the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex in Texas. The DMN is owned by the A.H. Belo Corporation.
Project resources: Nataly receives 15 to 35 entries a week and tends to choose stories that need a journalist to report on. She looks for ones that will need archival references or topics that require more research than the average person can dig into. Other than staff salary, other expenses are the Hearken platform costs.
Here’s What Worked
1. Connecting through digital tools
Both virtual community engagement response options through Instagram Live and the conference calls seem to truly help readers connect with Nataly and understand her day-to-day activities. Nataly really enjoys the loyal readers who send her emails. Hannah also offered in-person tours of the newsroom to readers.
2. Honoring reciprocity
Although it took some time for the newsroom to buy in to the concept, Curious Texas ended up being mutually beneficial for the readers and the reporters. Readers get to have more of a say in how their community is covered and journalists have a new influx of engaging story ideas.
3. Valuing media literacy
Overall building media literacy by re-engaging readers and repairing the relationship between the community and newspaper.
Here’s What Could Have Worked Better
1. Grow engagement team
Having Nataly split her time between Curious Texas and breaking news means that she isn’t able to devote as much attention to the project as she would like. She recommends having a dedicated person or team take on the project and ideally publish at least one story per week.
2. Hosting community events
She also would like to do more in-person community events. Finally, she would like to dig into more investigative stories that could have higher impact.
3. Posture of Humility
Nataly and Hannah both echoed that there is still work to be done, not just at the DMN but in newsrooms across the country. In order to help reporters think more like their readers, more humility is needed by newspaper staff.
To learn more about this project visit Curious Texas or contact Nataly Keomoungkhoun at firstname.lastname@example.org.