By Tiffany Walden
Traditional media typically functions as a one-way street. News outlets disseminate to, but rarely engage with the community – especially low-income neighborhoods and neighborhoods of color.
Though most sites have comment sections, and use social media such as Facebook and Twitter, former journalist Andrew Haeg says that the media still does a poor job of listening to the concerns of the surrounding community, and fails in presenting a diversity of stories and voices.
“I think we’re moving out of the age of the broadcast model [and into] a model… where people increasingly want to participate, people want to respond, [and] people want to text back,” Haeg says. “Our current model of media doesn’t allow them to do that.”
Haeg’s company GroundSource aims to change that. It’s a digital platform designed to help news organizations interact with communities to find story ideas and identify new voices.
Georgia-based Haeg spent 15 years as a journalist at The Economist and Minnesota Public Radio, where he says he saw community voices pushed aside by those in power who were manipulating and managing the news agenda.
“I wanted to create a way for newsrooms to be more connected to their communities and produce journalism that was more reflective of what was actually going on, versus what someone with the money to manage our time and news agenda said was going on,” Haeg says.
In 2003, Haeg co-founded the Public Insight Network, a way to connect journalists with a wider range of self-identified experts in various fields. In 2012, he left American Public Media to create GroundSource.
One of the most rewarding projects so far to adopt GroundSource is a community news service called The Listening Post in New Orleans. The Listening Post uses text messaging to share news and communicate with more than 1,200 people across the city.
“They put signs up around the community and use WWNO, a radio station in New Orleans, to promote The Listening Post on air,” Haeg says.
To join The Listening Post, you simply send a text message to a number advertised in the community. Once you’ve signed up, you receive regular texts about local developments, sent by Listening Post creator Jesse Hardman – and crucially, you’re also asked questions about how a local issue might affect you. Responses sent via text go into GroundSource’s system, where they can be shared, replied to, or used as the basis of further journalistic enquiry.
“Here in Georgia, we’ve used it to build our own Listening Post,” Haeg says. In its Georgia version, Haeg sent out questions via text message about gun ownership and attitudes towards guns.
“We got amazing responses from the community,” Haeg says. “One women said that her son had somewhat recently been killed walking to the gas station. He wasn’t involved in anything, just caught in the crossfire.”
The woman told The Listening Post that she has now taught her other children how to use firearms. In another call out, GroundSource partnered with a local housing authority to discover how many people in a particular public housing complex have internet access in their home.
“We got 120 responses in a couple of days. There’s probably 1,000 people in those [buildings], so upwards of 10 percent of all people responded,” Haeg says. “We found that about 80 percent of people in these housing complexes didn’t have internet at home at all.”
GroundSource’s text messages use an automated Q+A system that allows newsrooms to get responses to specific questions. Haeg believes that it’s more effective than simply having an open space for comments.
“If you don’t create a space for people to respond to you in a civil, structured way, then you’re going to get what you get at the end of news stories right now, which is a lot of garbage,” Haeg says.
Projects like The Listening Post, as well as other media outlets that have used GroundSource including Alabama Media Group, the Virginia Pilot, ProPublica, and Georgia Public Broadcasting, are more likely to encounter a greater diversity of opinion, as people who may not call in or comment on a site may feel more inclined to do so via text message. Haeg says text messages typically have a 90-plus percent open rate.
“By lowering the barrier to entry to make it as simple and communicative as a text message, we make it simple for anyone who is experiencing something to raise their hand and to express themselves.”
Andrew Haeg was named an RJI Fellow for 2016-17
Tiffany Walden writes about music and Black culture for a variety of publications, including Chicago Tribune, Chicago Reader and Blackdoctor.org. She is a former freelance writer for Ebony Magazine, breaking news reporter for Orlando Sentinel and government reporter for Abilene Reporter-News.
Image of GroundSource logo via groundsource.co