by Greg Retsinas
The Wichita Eagle newspaper created a 12-month, 12-book reading challenge that it runs through a closed Facebook group. Participants in the virtual book club can track their progress in the challenge, share book reviews, make recommendations, provide links to book-related stories and events, and engage with each other. The project is managed by the newspaper’s books columnist, Suzanne Tobias, who is also an education reporter.
Project Goals: Initially intended to provide material for Tobias and give local readers something fun to follow along with, the project is now part of the Eagle’s broader efforts to tackle local literacy problems.
Tools and Technology: The Eagle uses a Facebook group for the project that people can apply to join. (The paper has about 90,000 Facebook followers and a very active page, which factored into the decision to use Facebook.)
Impact: The reading group had 137 members as of July 2017. Its success so far has been mostly anecdotal — such as community members engaging with the columnist in public or participating in robust discussions on Facebook. Due to the project’s early success, the paper is planning to continue the reading challenge in 2018 and perhaps expand it. Nothing has been addressed regarding marketing or sponsorship yet, but that is also going to be explored as a possibility.
Organization Background: Wichita is a diverse community with a metro area of close to 400,000 people. Its school district is majority-minority, with ⅓ white, ⅓ Hispanic, ⅓ black or other. The community has a very popular and successful independent bookstore that brings in national authors, hosts book readings and is a community institution. The community’s support for books and reading in general helped give the columnist confidence that the reading challenge would be a good fit.
Project Resources: A newsroom staffer has helped with some design and graphics needs for the Facebook group, while Tobias has done all the moderation and platform management. To secure long-term funding, the paper has applied for a major grant from the Wichita Community Foundation to address literacy. The reading challenge is included in that grant request and, if the grant is received, the program will continue to be part of the paper’s overall literacy campaign.
Here’s what worked
1. Keeping the scope and size manageable, but not trying to accommodate everyone
“I think the size and scope of the initial (12-book) challenge was just right,” Tobias said. “One participant knocked off that challenge in short order (before March), so I ran a follow-up column on March 4, adding 12 ‘extra credit’ book categories, which was pretty well received but also kind of confused matters.” In retrospect, Tobias says it may have worked better to not add the extra categories, and instead encourage people to read on their own.
2. Using the power of Facebook
One advantage of using Facebook, Tobias said, is that it allows for better moderation and management. People must have verified Facebook accounts to join the group, which keeps trolls largely at bay.
3. Spreading the word
Tobias has worked with the local public radio station to feature the challenge on its podcast, and she has a close relationship with the main bookstore in town.
What could have worked better
1. Sponsorships could help with meet-ups, other tangible spinoffs
Among the possibilities that Tobias plans to explore next year are in-person meet-up events, as well as giveaways and other promotions.