Making Your Supporters Part of the Story: Learning from Minnesota Public Radio

[Cross-posted on the Covering Politics in Cyberspace blog.]

More from sprawling depths of Los Angeles — in a lunchtime presentation at the Knight New Media Center online politics seminar, Michael Skoler of Minnesota Public Radio gave a glimpse of an promising approach to integrating social media and traditional media to broaden a news outlet’s coverage. It’s potentially a good model for organizations or campaigns planning to use supporters to help tell their stories and to support their messages. Plus, they have some neat games you can play — for instance, why not build your own fantasy Minnesota Legislature (what more could we want from life?).

MPR’s Public Insight Journalism project builds a partnership with public radio listeners by bringing them in as both cited journalistic sources and as a channel for finding under-reported stories. MPR has created a network of over 40,000 people who have volunteered to help with stories and regularly contacts individual members or groups of members if their expertise might be useful.

For instance, for a story that involves the Minnesota Islamic community, MPR might get in touch with members of the network who have indicated that they are Muslim. In some cases, members’ opinions or experiences might be cited directly, but in others their insights may work behind the scenes to shape the way stories are researched or presented. Also, MPR will occasionally run surveys to find out what stories or aspects of stories are being under-covered, which has led in the past to coverage of issues from angles that diverge from the all-too-common journalistic pack mentality.

This approach is a hybrid of citizen journalism and traditional journalism, since MPR’s audience isn’t writing or preparing stories directly, as they might on a newspaper blog. Instead, their experience is filtered through the expertise and judgment of MPR’s editorial staff, which allows the broadcast outlet to leverage the collective intelligence of their audience without surrendering control over the direction of coverage. They see it as getting the best of both journalistic worlds — journalistic standards still apply, but reporters get to go beyond the usual experts (the members of their “Golden Rolodexes”).

MPR has developed other ways to involve readers in stories and issues, for instance by including a “help us cover this story” button on all online stories to allow readers to add extra resources or correct errors. Much more up my alley, they’ve also built several online games based around issues of the day, with more to come. Balance the state budget! As someone who worked on budgetary issues in the Texas Legislature approximately 1000 years ago, I think that anything you can do to help the public understand the trade-offs involved in appropriating money is A Good Thing (the level of ignorance of some of the folks who used to call into our office was frightening). And, build your own fantasy Minnesota Legislature, Fantasy Football-style, with points for each milestone your team members reach in the legislative process (bill introduction, floor vote, final passage, etc.). Political nerd-fun of the highest order, let me tell ya.

Campaigns and advocacy organizations can learn from this project! You CAN involve your supporters without completely surrendering control over your message — social media isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition. Just don’t forget the fun factor….


Written by
Colin Delany
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