You will never know how your community is engaging with your coverage unless you ask. Our partners at the Record-Journal in Meriden, Conn., experienced this firsthand after holding more than 80 conversations with community members and hearing from more than 2,000 survey respondents.
The Record-Journal is one of around a dozen news organizations participating in API’s yearlong cohort of newsrooms focused on improving the diversity of sources in news coverage through our source diversity tracking tool Source Matters. In a recent meeting, our group heard from Letrell Crittenden, API’s director of audience growth and inclusion and creator of the Inclusion Index, who talked about the importance of community engagement and listening.
Eric Cotton, executive editor, and Richie Rathsack, assistant managing editor of digital content and analytics, proudly shared the in-depth community engagement efforts their newsroom has prioritized, specifically building the team that works on the Latino Communities Reporting Lab. This is a long-term initiative that aims to amplify the voices of local Latino communities.
For the final edition of Diversify Your Sources, I spoke with Rathsack to dive into how the Record-Journal is using previous engagement work to inform their source tracking initiative. Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
KATIE: Can you talk more about your ongoing community engagement efforts at the Record-Journal?
RICHIE: Oh, I could talk all day about the Latino Communities Reporting Lab. Over the last four decades, the diverse Latino population has grown significantly in Connecticut, but especially in the coverage area for the Record-Journal. In order to learn about and from Latino communities, the 155-year-old family-owned newspaper embarked on an extensive listening tour over five months at the end of 2020 and beginning of 2021.
The team at RJ Media had more than 80 conversations with various community stakeholders that included educators, nonprofit leaders, community members and leaders, chambers of commerce, business owners and businesspeople, church leaders and members, politicians and government officials, and foundations. They also conducted focus groups and solicited more than 2,000 survey responses in the community. What they learned led them to create the Latino Communities Reporting Lab.
K: What were the most surprising or unexpected things you heard from the community in your listening tour? How did these insights shape the Lab’s approach?
R: I boiled the 100-plus pages of notes from the conversations into two pages of takeaways. Lab staff use these takeaways to guide our news strategies. The two pages were further broken down into the four main points of the mission statement.
Here are a few other key takeaways:
- We heard that staff, sources and voices in stories should look and speak like the audience we are trying to cover.
- Don’t treat Latinos as a monolith (which prompted the “communities” part of the name). The Latino community is very diverse.
- We heard several times that people don’t read the news because it scares them or makes them feel helpless. Try to do stories that empower readers or look to solutions.
- Share success stories of Latinos highlighting the different paths they may have taken to get there. Modern careers are rarely a straight line.
One of the most surprising things was how dicey the topic of language was. People had very strong opinions of whether content should be in English, Spanish or both. Some said it should be in English to help Spanish speakers learn and acclimate to their communities. Others said both or in Spanish to help non-English speakers feel like they are part of the community. We opted for both when we can.
K: You mentioned soliciting more than 2,000 survey responses, a great sample size! Can you share some of the most significant findings or trends that emerged from these surveys? How did these findings influence the Lab’s strategies?
R: We took the data to use as guidelines for our news strategies. The four highest topic areas were health, education, music/arts/culture, local events and sports. That order kind of surprised me.
Also, from the report, “Overall, respondents had high levels of trust in local and national news sources, and slightly lower trust in social media news. Despite this, Facebook is commonly listed as a preferred news source, though it is unclear whether respondents are following specific news companies or relying on news from friends, family, or news aggregators/algorithms.”
K: Are there any upcoming events or opportunities for community members to engage with the Lab? What have you been up to this year with the Lab?
R: We have our Community Advisory Board, which meets monthly, to continue listening to the communities. We also take part in local events. We had a booth at the Meriden Puerto Rican Festival again this year with staff and CAB members talking to festival-goers about the Lab, their interests and trying to get them to sign up for the Lab’s email newsletter. We also plan to do more focus groups and, via the CAB, start a youth initiative to reach more young people. This is still developing, but our CAB took this on as their own project.
K: How are you all connecting this project with tracking the diversity of people quoted in your stories? I would love to know how you’re connecting the past work with your current source tracking work.
R: During one of the listening calls, we heard that the Literacy Volunteers use the RJ in their English classes, but would usually direct students to the sports section where they might see the name of a Latino high school athlete that they know. As a news editor, it really stood out to me that they couldn’t find the same thing in the news stories. We needed to fix that. Tracking sources holds us accountable to ensure we’re representing the voices of the entire community, which also furthers the lab’s mission of amplifying Latino voices. That’s also why we added family nationality as a question in the Source Matters collection data, to ensure that we’re representing the diverse voices within the Latino communities.